Kill the HR Speak

By Dr. John Sullivan

Feb. 21, 2008

I can’t stand “HR speak,” that convoluted language that HR consultants, vendors and professors love to create and use. Whether you call it HR speak, or HR blah blah or HR babble, once you bring up the term among executives, almost everyone immediately knows what you’re talking about.

The HR profession has managed to create a bewildering array of meaningless terms. When you’re in the realm of HR strategy, it is nearly impossible to read an article or view a PowerPoint that isn’t littered with terms like “business partner,” “seat at the table,” “organizational alignment” or “balanced scorecard.”

The organizational development function really seems to excel at making up words that follow the fad of the month. In fact, the term organizational development itself probably qualifies as one of the most impossible-to-define terms. In recent years, OD wordsmiths have enshrined themselves in the HR Speak Hall of Fame with terms like “engagement,” “corporate culture” and “360-degree performance review.” They are not alone, however. Training and development also excels at confusing managers and employees with terms like “learning organization,” “performance coaching,” “distance learning” and my all-time favorite, “competency management.”

Every function within the HR profession deserves some level of credit for creating confusion. These terms often emerge when corporate leaders are fed up and want something different, a situation that can lead HR leaders to rebrand the same old approaches and tools under a different name: “talent management” becomes “human capital management,” for example.

I’m not the first to accuse HR of using confusing jargon. Keith Hammond’s famous Fast Company magazine article “Why We Hate HR” superbly described how the national SHRM conference was the epicenter of confusing HR speak. Scott Adams, originator of the Dilbert series, has made a fortune making fun of our fads and terminology. A Google search also brings up thousands of comments from individuals complaining about HR speak and wanting to know what HR really means when it uses such phrases.

Why is the proliferation of HR speak a problem? To begin with, it builds a language wall between us and the rest of the business. If you’ve ever sat with a CEO during executive committee meetings, you’ll note that most executives have a relatively limited vocabulary. It often includes “hard” and easily measurable words like “profit,” “stock price,” “ROI” and “market share.”

Executives also use a quantifiable language, one which is primarily made up of numbers and dollars. HR practitioners, in contrast, use in their presentations and conversations “soft” terminology like “emotional intelligence,” “work/life balance” and “empowerment.” These are almost totally devoid of numbers and dollars.

And because it so often amounts to Orwellian doublespeak, HR speak causes a great deal of anxiety and confusion among both managers and employees. Ask anyone who has ever been told by HR that the company was about to be “right-sized.”

The proliferation of such jargon not only affects those whom HR serves, but also causes HR professionals to waste an inordinate amount of time just trying to reach agreement on what these terms actually mean. Can anyone agree on what distinguishes a “human capital management” approach from that of a traditional HR approach? Further, what differentiates the activities of “talent management” functions from traditional recruiting, staffing and talent development functions?

The solution to this linguistic problem is pretty simple. First of all, we in HR need to make a conscious effort to use business terms exclusively. If we can’t find a word in an annual report or a financial statement, we shouldn’t use it, period. Next, we need to make every attempt to use not the most complex word, but instead, the most understandable word when dealing with managers and employees. So instead of saying “competencies,” we should simply say “skills.”

We should aggressively challenge HR professionals who use HR speak, or demand that they clearly and measurably define each term.

Finally, because the root of all these words is some kind of HR fad, HR professionals need to realize that their job is to increase the productivity, capability and innovation of the workforce. They should focus on the basics that contribute to these goals. When a vendor, consultant, speaker or professor from Michigan, Cornell, USC, Princeton or Minnesota tries to tell you that they have a “new” approach with a fancy new name, you should immediately stand up and walk out. Let them bounce their empty terms off an equally empty room.

Workforce Management, February 18, 2008, p. 23Subscribe Now!

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