Bad HR Jargon

We’ve covered bad business jargon in this space, but other fields of endeavour are guilty of polluting the language with their specialist lingo.

Human resources (itself a piece of HR jargon; it used to be personnel or, in a more sexist age, manpower) comes to mind. Here are some examples of HR jargon to avoid; there are many more.

Americans often refer to a diverse attorney when they want to describe a lawyer (as we would typically say in Canada) from a background that is other than white, male, straight, middle class. But in a room full of brown lesbian barristers, there is no diversity (at least on the basis of race, sexual orientation or area of practice). We are diverse only in relation to others and collectively.

What the adjective means in diverse lawyers is, less concisely but more accurately, historically disadvantaged or underrepresented in the legal profession. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so perhaps diverse in this context serves a purpose.

But I still don’t like its imprecision.

Originally, feed-back; and used to describe the return of electrical output from one segment of a circuit or amplifier to an earlier stage of input – like the feedback from the speakers when you’re rocking out on an electric guitar.

From about the 1940s, the word began to be applied metaphorically to a response to any kind of process, often in relation to the kind of behavioural conditioning associated with the American psychologist B.F. Skinner.

More recently, and in HR-speak, feedback has come to mean commentary on someone’s job performance.

Given the origins of the term in circuitry and behavioural science, where feedback is involuntary or automatic, rather than thoughtful or considered, its extension to performance reviews is somewhat unfortunate. Couldn’t we just ask for comments, views or a review? But this is a losing battle; feedback in its HR sense is here to stay.

This is a recent coinage, much loved by those who give (but perhaps not receive) performance reviews.

It was invented as an opposite for reactive, a quality which is perceived as a weakness and in need of a forward-looking alternative (even though reacting is often all one can do when events are unforeseen or unforeseeable, as they often are).

Even those with foresight don’t proact, they simply act; and if one is both thinking ahead, one anticipates. Seen in a positive light, proactive means thoughtful or careful; more neutrally, merely fortunate in predicting an outcome (or in making it look as though one saw it coming).

Either way, proactive is overused HR jargon that is best avoided.

This is another piece of weary HR-ese, with unpleasant overtones of organised fun, forced collegiality and top-down decision-making (Andrea and her team just makes me think it’s all about Andrea, somehow).

Or maybe I’m just not a team-player.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)

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