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Jun 28, 2011

By Dr. John Sullivan

If you worked in a business function where a majority of those you served were unclear about exactly what you do, wouldn’t you want to know why?

If you work in HR, it might come as a surprise to you that it is not unusual for a majority of managers to report that they are confused about what HR does. A 2007 study by the Australian Human Resource Institute found that an astounding 80 percent of mangers outside HR either did not “understand or were unsure about what the human resources department does.”

That finding was reinforced on a global scale by a 2010 Mercer study that found 84 percent of business executives admitted to having no more than a moderate understanding of the return on human capital in their organizations. Can you imagine the uproar that would occur within finance, accounting, advertising or supply chain if a majority of their users openly admitted that they were confused about what the function does or the value of that work?

Hard to understand, impossible to measure terms

There are, of course, multiple reasons for this disastrous level of uncertainty, confusion and anxiety related to HR. They include the confusing jargon often used, the frequent lack of strategic planning, unclear goals, painfully weak metrics and an ongoing debate over who is HR’s customer. No individual can address all of HR’s strategic shortcomings, but everyone in the profession can do their part limiting manager confusion that results from confusing jargon.

If you are unfamiliar with HR’s well-earned reputation for the overuse of creative language and jargon, a simple Google search can quickly reveal that those outside the profession often refer to it as “HR gobbledygook,” “HR blah blah,” “HR babble,” “HR Bulls**t,” and my favorite, “HR speak.”

HR speak includes hard to understand and nearly impossible to measure terms including competencies, EQ, engagement, rightsizing, and inclusion. The widespread criticism of such jargon can be easily found and continues to contribute to the poor image of the profession.

The time has come to confront this practice. HR is an enabling function and the number one communications rule of any enabling function is to stick to the language of whatever is being enabled, in the case of HR the business itself.

The very worst examples of “HR Speak”

HR speak is so prevalent that it’s possible to categorize the plethora of terms into six distinct categories.

1. The first and most egregious category covers “the names” given to the function itself. Unsatisfied with the title Personnel, many practitioners led the charge to re-brand as Human Resources. When the re-branding effort failed to generate the desired level of respect, new terms including Human Capital Management, and more recently, Talent Management emerged.

While the name has changed, few managers or even those inside the profession can define human capital or talent management no less explain the differences between Human Capital Management, Talent Management and HR.

2. The second category of HR Speak covers strategic goals, which do little to clarify the role and purpose of the function in most cases. The primary goal seems to be simply “earning a seat at the table.” Such a goal seems childish in an executive world which focuses on producing business results rather than simply gaining access.

A second goal, “aligning HR goals with business goals,” seems to infer that we are simply attempting to catch up to the rest of the business, rather than to lead it. Also included in this category are the job titles we use for ourselves. This includes HR titles like generalist and “organizational change manager,” and unfortunately, neither title helps to clarify the person’s role to a manager.

The worst HR goal and job title anywhere is “business partner.” This made up title is certainly not used by any other support or overhead function, and as a goal, becoming a “business partner” certainly sends a clear message that we are simply striving to eventually become “an equal,” instead of being a leader.

3. The third and possibly broadest category of HR speak covers our extensive use of barely definable and measurable words. Nowhere within the HR department can managers find the “official” definition or commonly accepted measures for alignment, culture (i.e. invisible guidance on how to act), corporate fit (i.e. whether a new hire will mesh or clash with the organization) and “learning organization.

This category also includes words or concepts that we simply make up. If you want to confuse managers, you can count on words and concepts like emotional intelligence, corporate social responsibility/sustainability, wellness and the award-winner — work/life balance — to contribute to that confusion. Be careful not to be fooled into thinking that the use of HR jargon is okay because managers sometimes repeat the jargon presented to them, reuse doesn’t always indicate understanding.

4. The next category covers the HR profession’s habit of continuously inventing brand new words for existing practices and programs. Skills, knowledge and abilities worked for decades as a means to describe candidate and job requirements, but today competencies is the buzz word of choice. KSA’s were easy for everyone to understand and even easier to modernize as technology and practice evolved. Competencies, on the other hand, are anything but finitely defined.

We also used to be comfortable with measuring employee morale, loyalty or satisfaction, but calling it engagement lets consultants charge more! Not only are there a dozen unclear definitions of the word engagement, it is now being supplemented with additional confusing terms including involvement, empowerment and employee commitment.

Orientation has been split adding onboarding to the mix and exit interviews have been extended into offboarding, all while employee turnover got revered to be called retention. Even the simple concept of equal employment opportunity (EEO) and affirmative action could not be left alone, now coined diversity and “inclusion.”

5. The fifth category, also a large one includes HR euphemisms. While many in business are crying out for transparency and authenticity, the HR profession is famous for the opposite.

Instead of simply saying “you no longer have a job,” we use terms like reduction in force, downsizing, eliminating redundancy, rightsizing, smartsizing, redeployment, workforce optimization, delayering, off shoring and outsourcing. One firm that shall go unnamed even used the term “enhanced career opportunities” instead of simply telling employees that they no longer had a job. Forced pay cuts get called furloughs or reduction in time, when few (if any) work expectations change.

We shouldn’t be surprised that employees and managers are confused by the term “performance management” or the latest fancy term, consequence management, when we really mean progressive discipline and the possibility of termination for cause. Occasionally we treat managers and employees like they are stupid when we use the term “self-service,” because they realize right away that it really means HR is shifting its workload so that it now takes up the valuable work time of managers and workers.

6. The final category covers HR metrics. Even the long-established and accepted business terms metrics or KPI’s are being replaced by clear as mud terms such as workforce analytics, human capital analytics, business intelligence and balanced scorecards. Our use of a “balanced scorecard” is a major contributor to the separation between HR and the rest of the business, because the word “balanced” by itself infers that we in HR are so different that we can’t use the same financial and productivity measures used by every other function. It also seems to infer that those in finance are “unbalanced.”

Honorable mention in the language of HR Speak

Another area that is worth mentioning is the long list of professional certifications HR professionals insist on putting next to their name. Do you really believe that putting some little known credential (i.e. PHR, SPHR, GPHR, HCS, SWP, etc. makes you more credible to someone that thinks that GPHR stands for “gopher.”

HR practitioners should realize that it’s overuse of acronyms (OD, 360’s, CHRO, 401k, etc.) makes it even more difficult for outsiders to understand what HR is talking about. In researching this article, I literally broke out laughing numerous times while reading issues of HR Magazine when I encountered phrases like “the CEO’s consigliore” and “resilience training.”

In addition to SHRM, other serial inventors or spreaders of HR speak include academics, HR consultants and product and service vendors.

Business words that HR doesn’t use often enough

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are many business-oriented words that HR needs to use more often, including terms like productivity, revenue impact, quality, competitive advantage, innovation, risk management and impact on profit.

It’s also worth mentioning that when HR does use a business term like ROI, it gets it completely wrong when it covers only the cost side of the equation, without measuring the return (the impact of the program on business revenue and profit).

Action steps to take

I recommend that you set as your goal to significantly raise the painfully low percentage of managers and employees that actually understand what you do and the impact you have. Begin by increasing the use of business words within HR.

I recommend that you assign a team to gather and document the common business language that is used by executives in your organization. Have them identify all frequently used business terms from the executive committee’s agenda, the profit and loss statement, and the annual report.

Next, you need to simplify the language used by your staff. Start by literally “banning” creative names for HR programs and the use of euphemisms. Then develop a “word filter” (covering forbidden words) and an alternative word list (containing superior “clearer” words) which can be used by all to ensure that all HR communications are dominated by business words and not by jargon, acronyms and the latest HR fads.

Put some added teeth in your approach by informally fining anyone within HR $20 bucks for use of a forbidden word in a meeting, presentation or in written communications