HR terms: the plain-spoken glossary

We’ve been arguing for a while now that language matters in recruitment (and HR in general). We will keep doing so. To a casual observer it’s pretty obvious that we should have reached “peak jargon” by now. Sadly jargon is not a resource that taps out quickly and there’s no reason to think we’re at the top of the bell curve on this.

Any group of people who gather every day to talk about similar or related topics start using shortcuts to get to the point more quickly. Slowly this transforms from useful shorthand into a verbal wall that excludes newcomers.

In response to this we’ve made our own shortlist of HR terms worth understanding. Some of them began life as jargon, others are simple terms that were replaced by more complex jargon and are overdue a revival.

This glossary is not an exhaustive list of the language and terminology used in human resources or business more generally. There are comprehensive glossaries which already do this job well, such as SHRM and HR New Zealand’s effort, which we like for its clear format. If you’d like to read about the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) or ERISA (Employment Retirement Income Security Act), or the latest 401k options, that’s fair enough but this isn’t the place for it.

HR Terminology Top 10

1. People

Once upon a time we had “personnel” which nobody liked. Then along came “human resources”, which most people found they could get along with but were never entirely happy with. For the last two decades we’ve seen the rise of “talent”. There are some who still argue that the best way to refer to people who work for a company in whatever capacity is “staff” but this is problematic on a couple of levels. Firstly, it’s widely understood to refer only to people under a full time contract and secondly, why not just say people? Try putting people into a sentence with talent, human resources, staff or personnel and all of these terms sound warmer and more human. We work with other people, surely this makes sense?

2. Sourcing

This is an area which has been dominated by flawed language for too long. Sometimes the person you need to hire is looking for a job, sometimes they’re not. When it’s not the case and you’re looking for someone who already works somewhere else the language gets feudal and bloody. Terms like “headhunt” should have given us pause for thought. And as for poaching (which used to mean shooting the landowner’s livestock without permission) it implies that employees are their employers’ deer to be shot. Really? We like “sourcing” which is simple, descriptive and doesn’t imply that one set are owned by another.

3. Employer Brand

Wait a second, we hear you call. Isn’t employer brand just another term for reputation? Sort of yes and sort of no. An employer brand acknowledges the fact that companies must now make a more wide-ranging effort to build their reputation. It’s not hype, hiring has become more like marketing and it’s easier than ever for prospective hires to get an advance idea of what it’s like to work for your company. By thinking of your reputation as an employer brand it encourages a more rounded idea of how you’re seen. Everything that you, your colleagues and your company do in public (on or offline) are part of this brand and will impact on people’s desire to work with you.

4. Onboarding

Another useful HR term born of jargon. We “onboard” new people at Workable (part of the process involves sending them a copy of Donald Norman’s brilliant book, ‘Things That Make Us Smart’) so it would be odd not to include it here. It’s one of those ‘why use two words when you can make one’ examples but sometimes they just work. One of the classic mistakes made in recruiting is to stop trying as soon as an offer has been accepted. Coining a new term is a small price to pay for getting this right.

5. Morale

This has been a petri dish for business jargon. We’re in the grip of an epidemic of plummeting employee engagement, we’re breathlessly told. In fact it’s always been difficult to hire the right team and keep them motivated. Morale takes in confidence, enthusiasm and discipline and describes group as well as individual dynamics. It also has the advantage of being clear to anyone in terms of what it means. Too much of the boosterism around happiness and engagement metrics has actually been a backdoor way of measuring individual productivity. There’s nothing wrong with measuring this but it should be talked about openly and better belongs under our sixth term below.

6. Performance review

We’ve long had appraisals, evaluations and we still have 360-degree everything but there is something honest and straightforward about a performance review. It should be apparent to anyone that a business and its employees need to check in with each other regularly so that both sides know where they stand. Some outfits prefer constant feedback and others will go with quarterly, half-yearly or annual reviews. When the balance of communication is right the contents of a review shouldn’t be a surprise to the reviewer or the reviewed.

7. Remote working

More work is being done outside the office than ever before. What used to be known as telecommuting has also appeared as distributed work and teams. There’s an argument to be made for talking about distributed work but it works better as a way of describing teams than categorizing work. In addition some fully distributed teams have no office headquarters in the first place. The reality for the majority of companies is that they have some of their people working remotely and some working from the office. How to manage this blend is only going to grow in importance of for HR professionals.

8. Compensation

Compensation wins out over terms like salary and pay not because it should replace them in all contexts but because it encourages a more rounded way of thinking about how to motivate people to do the job in front of them. Compensation includes equity and any other financial instrument that might be offered to an employee.

9. Benefits

We’re not on a campaign against perks but benefits wins because it’s a better way to think about everything not covered by compensation. Perks leans a little towards the ‘give them a pinball machine’ way of thinking about motivation. Benefits can be pinball machines and craft beer in the office but it takes in more important aspects of the workplace as well as important stuff from 401k plans to a company car.

10. Training

This has been another playground for the masters of jargon. We’ve had “careerpathing,” development of almost every kind and a host of words that your spell-check will underline in red. What they all refer to in their different ways is training. This is not to diminish the importance of teaching people new skills and opening up a career for them inside your organization. It’s just a restatement of the simple truth that training people and letting them gain some experience remains the only real way of doing this. So why complicate the language?

Choosing some things for the glossary means leaving others out. Inevitably some people will disagree with our choices and we’d be happy to debate this @Workable or on the hashtag #HRbuzz. There you go, a plea for plain speaking with its own hashtag, who are we to talk?

Let's grow together

Start hiring now with a 15-day free trial. Or talk to us about your hiring plans and
discover how Workable can help you find and hire great people.