A path lit by words

What’s in a word?

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What’s in a word?

A lot, especially if it’s jargon.

Reading an article from Fast Company called “5 Secrets to Better Employee Engagement,” I got distracted by the author’s use of the word “brand.” The article itself was great, dead on in most ways in terms of actions and approaches that increase engagement. My comment to the author was:

“Please, whatever you do, don’t call it an employment brand in public, to your employees. The word is too buzzy, it sounds phony or pretentious, and it makes a lot of employees suspicious about your motives.”

As a communicator, I’ve been there, done that. I spent 25 years in Human Resources, land of buzzwords, acronyms, and jargon, beginning with what we called ourselves. Just this morning I googled “names for Human Resources” and dropped into discussions that were remarkable in their earnestness: Groups of people debated the pros and cons of Human Capital Management, People and Culture, People Relations Management, Talent Management, and the Center for Organization Effectiveness, to name a few. Google calls its HR function People Operations, a name I like because it’s simple. It makes it clear that people are there to work. It doesn’t get snarled up in the emotional argument that the word “resources” depersonalizes human beings.

Here’s the point: Whatever you call it, the intention is what counts, and after that, the behavior. How does the company treat its employees, associates, assets, resources, talent—whatever it calls the people who do the work? And that’s where things so often fall apart.

The article about employment branding to increase engagement set me off because it reminded me of an “initiative” I worked on. The consultants arrived with glossy presentations filled with jargon and catchy phrases that were quickly picked up by the project team, a group of people engaged in a risky endeavor—risky because their employer was notorious for being alternately oblivious to and demeaning of its staff. The project team felt threatened because their coworkers already were suspicious and tense. The consultant’s elite lexicon, with its pillars and proof points, purchase drivers and messaging matrices, made the project team feel special. It made them feel safe. Unfortunately, it made the rest of the workforce angry, bordering on hostile, first, because it excluded them and second, because it seemed to be missing the point.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for employment branding because it takes a thoughtful and deliberate approach to people, in the context of business strategy and culture. I love acronyms for their cleverness and jargon for its precision. But linguistic devices need to stay behind closed doors, restricted to those who already speak the language.

The best communication happens when you forget about yourself, your insecurities, and your needs, and speak to your audience in terms that are clear, candid, and meaningful to them. Paired with consistent, follow-up actions, there is no better way to build a dedicated workforce that returns your sincerity and respect.

Author: Jean Bardo

I'm a freelance Human Resources consultant and blogger, a published short story writer, and an aspiring author of fiction I call "literary mysteries."

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