How HR Speak Hurts HR – And Some HR Words That Should Be Banned

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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.

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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

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



19 Comments on “How HR Speak Hurts HR – And Some HR Words That Should Be Banned

  1. I’d like to add “human capital” to your list of banned words. Sounds like something on a balance sheet.

  2. I got my PHR only because it mattered so much to other HR gatekeepers whether or not I had it in order to move forward in my career.  I don’t make it a requirement in recruiting HR staff, but I think I’m in the minority.

    I have one other bit of HR speak that should be banned. It isn’t mysterious, but it’s a killer: “No, you can’t do that.”

    1. Couldn’t agree more Amy. I obtained my PHR only because the “game” requires it.

      This mindset is going to severly limit the innovation of our craft too in my opinion.

      Zuckerberg, Hseish, Branson, Gates, Jobs – did these leaders spend significant amounts of time studying for a certification or completing a graduate degree in hopes of landing a decent corporate gig? No, they knew their efforts were better served creating and following their passion.

      Daniel Pink talks about this in Drive, when you remove the intrinsic motivation (which I feel is occurring with SHRM certification becoming explicitly tied to career advancement and monetary gains), you actually decrease motivation which in turn affects productivity and innovation.

      Certifcations and licensures are important and are needed; whether it’s for public (safety) or distinction in a overly crowded field. I just do not believe HR fits either of these criteria.

      This quote from Good Will Hunting hits it on the head,

      “See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a f***in’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!”

  3. Author makes some good points re not over using jargon, however, the author indulges in gross overkill!
    His gross generalities to make his points makes me laugh at black or white mindset. He completely misses the need for specific terms to define HR Programs.
    Finance and IT define their programs and don’t apologize for doing so and nor should HR.
    Mike Schiavoni – Schiavoni Leadership Group LLC

  4. Dr. Sullivan I think you have articulated HR’s search for credibility. Make yourself sound more important to try to be more important. I like your call for a defined language of HR. This needs to start at the company level, but also needs to occur at the level of the profession. I do agree with Mike Schiavoni however, in that all areas of a company has its own language. The difference is that they have been around so long that many people understand those terms, at least on a management level. Finance, IT, Sales, Manufacturing all have their special terms, acronyms and buzz phrases.

  5. Like most people in our profession, I’ve been guilty of
    using many of these “silly” terms. Likewise, I’ve encountered plenty of people
    throughout my career that had minimal understanding of HR’s capabilities,
    purpose and what they should expect from us.


    Sadly, some of these people were HR “professionals”
    themselves who weren’t business minded enough to comprehend the concept of
    adding value. They wound up in HR “accidently”
    and due to the above no one questioned their lack of actual contribution,
    original thoughts or ability to see the bigger (beyond HR policy police)


    It does seem unfortunate the we are compelled to acquire mostly
    meaningless certifications to “prove” that we know what we are doing.
    Meanwhile, these certifications only seem to provide a constant revenue stream
    for the issuing body rather than elevating the credibility and relevance of the
    HR profession.


    Does the average person assume the pricey SPHR after my name
    means stupid-person-hardly-relevant? 
    Steadily-producing-half-assed-reactions? Simply-pathetic-honestly-rejected?
    Start-pretending-happy-patrol? Some-people-hate-reality?


  6. Dr. Sullivan…I agree with everything you say in your post….but, I will point out one thing…Chief Talent Officer is right smack at the top of the HR jargon heap.

  7. Excellent thoughts, I guess our breed needs our own “hr” standards, just like we hv accounting standards for every business, we should have HR standards for HR practitioners and the key practice sd be to hire ethically, fire sensibly and decide salary responsibly .

  8. After reading this article and the accompanying comments, I realize just how much ignorance is still out there regarding the HR profession.  The jargon that Dr. Sullivan references is very real, but it also has a very real place in both business and the HR profession.  Let’s just look at a couple of examples because his article lists far too many examples of ignorance to delve into all of them.

    According to Dr. Sullivan, the worst use of jargon is business partner.  Let’s just take a look at what this term actually means.  The phrase itself does not imply that HR just wants to keep up.  It implies that certain HR practitioners are well versed in business acumen and provide a strategic look at how to best ensure an organization has people with the talents and skills necessary to ensure the success of the organization on both a short and long term basis.  The phrase seperates some HR professionals apart from those who are in HR merely as paper pushers and/or administrators.
    Then there is the dreaded “generalist” jargon.  Let me ask you, have you ever gone to a medical specialist to look after a specific illness? Well in HR, specialists exist who have expertise in recruiting, training, employee relations, etc.  Those who do not specialize in a specific aspect of HR are called generalists, because they have a broad knowledge  around all aspects of HR.  It isn’t just a “made up word”.
    As for those of you who have earned a PHR just to appease some gatekeeper, let me ask you, would you have your taxes done by someone who is not a CPA or be represented in a court of law by someone who has never passed the Bar exam?  Probably not.  The same holds true for those who hold PHR, SPHR and GPHR certifications.  These individuals have proven that they possess a significant knowledge base within the HR profession.  If you hold a certification for some other reason, you have missed the bigger picture. 
    For Dr. Sullivan to claim that he is the “Michael Jordan of Hiring” and is an expert on recruiting and staffing is very troubling.  His article reads like a uninformed, opinionated cynic who has not progressed in his thinking since the 1960’s.  Shame on you Dr. Sullivan.  I would expect that a management “professor” would understand that all of this “jargon” is indeed rooted in need, legal definations, SHRM standards and academic research.

  9. I have never posted a comment online before but feel compelled to comment on this very tired and poorly written article by Dr. Sullivan. As a career HR professional with a Masters degree in HR, I read this article with an open mind and an expectation that it could provide useful insights into our profession. Wow, was I disappointed! Eliminate jargon by assembling a team to create a “word filter” that is expected to produce an acceptable list of “business words” for HR professionals within my organization. I don’t know how HR functioned at Agilent but I can tell you that that idea is laughable within any company that I know. I’m with “His Airness” that the HR profession needs to elevate its collective game but I assure you it is not through word filters. We need set much higher standards for ourselves (no, not through certifications), establish challenging expectations from our clients and then deliver. We need to hire HR professionals who understand business, in general, and train them to ensure that they understand the specifics of the businesses they support. This is a minimum requirement and the foundation for success of any HR professional.

    Time to move on, Dr. Sullivan. Our field contributes and is capable of much more than your article suggests.

  10. “If you can’t blind ’em with brilliance, baffle ’em with b*** s***”. I can’t help but think that there are a whole lot of reasons for HR Speak.  Part of it is to make the profession seem more, uh, professional in a world where appearance is far more important than accomplishment.  As an HR professional, I do the best I can for my company, regardless of what I’m assigned. I use my knowledge and skills where I can and where they’re accepted (yes, some of those further up the ‘food chain’ still ignore me and my warnings). I use as little BS as I can get by with. They keep signing my paychecks. I think of my interactions as opportunities for training for them in what I do as well as for me in what they do.

    Knowledge is power. If I have a term you don’t understand, but I do, that makes me a little more powerful.

  11. Really great points. I found also people who has no idea about HR abbreviation. On the other hand, I think that now there is an over-focus (and use) on words like social media and talent.

  12. Well, worth a giggle I must say but “thought leader” falls right into those buzz words.  HR isn’t the only profession using nonsense buzz words and I hate to say it but in many instances, it’s thought leaders that create them : )  it goes to show that even too much of our own great thoughts can become overkill.  In the meantime, I need to smartsize my waistline post Christmas pudding.

  13. This is not a very well written article. It seems the “HR thought leader” that wrote this has never worked in a corporation doing HR. I agree with the silliness of obtaining multiple certifications to prove you know something, which is why I don’t have any, but the rest of this is about business speak – not HR speak. It’s a little unfair to attack HR. the first few comments people left on this article link explain my sentiments.

  14. Sully-

    Here in NYC, the acronym for the local SHRM chapter (“SHRM”? Sounds like something one redneck calls another) is HRNY (for those who can’t see it, say “horny”).

    Gotta go – I’m late for my seat at the table…

  15. It’s REALLY interesting to read this article a year later. A year that is leading to Workforce Analytics becoming the “next big thing” in HR! Yet not much has changed in all other areas. I think that the problems are two-fold: (1) Within HR circles there is no agreement about what a job is and what the job title for the job should be, and (2) HR’s “failure to communicate”. If we don’t have at least these two attributes, how on earth can we expect others to understand? My suggestion would be that the HR “societies and professional bodies” around the world should all get together and set the standards for jobs and job titles in HR. Then subscribing individuals and organisations should make the effort to change to the standard – and then communicate this to the rest of the organisation. Having gone a long way to working on this for IT, I’m more than willing to assist.

    And my response to Hr_concepts “I’d like to add “human capital” to your list of banned words. Sounds like something on a balance sheet.”, that’s because it’s intented to be an item on the balance sheet. Today 80% of an organisation’s value is attributable to “intangible assets” – and for the non-financial people, this means the value of the brand and the intellectual property (read “talent”) of the organisation. So, over the past year there has been a strong movement to including “Human Capital” (as an organisational value) to the balance sheet. My opinion – this is a major step up in recognising the contribution of the workforce to organisational value … and of course a move towards the C-Suite for the HR people responsible:)

  16. “Thought-leader”? Using bullshit alienating terms has become so reflexive that they go unremarked. The reason people have so little respect for whatever payroll are calling themselves this week is not failure to understand what they do (aggrandisement and dilettantism), but why these children and cousins of the influential continue to be carried.
    When you announce that new employees will be ‘on boarded’, nobody is impressed that you got a certificate in being annoying from an institution where inclusivity has replaced rigour. They simply note that nobody outside observational comedy uses that vocabulary, sigh resignedly and prepare to pay cynical lip-service to whatever harebrained scheme the comic that calls itself a ‘journal’ has suggested this month.

  17. “Thought-Leader…”? “…bold”? “high-business impact”??? Dr. you get an A+ and extra points for irony! Don’t worry Dr. Sullivan, employees and managers in a corporate workforce as “team members” longer than ten minutes are well aware of what HR does.

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