Sin of omission?

I was listening at lunchtime yesterday to the BBC’s director of human resources being grilled about bullying and the ‘strong undercurrent of fear’ uncovered at the corporation by its recent Respect at Work review. The interviewer suggested that the human resources department was itself complicit, being widely regarded as enforcers and facilitators for management – a charge the HR chief naturally enough dismissed.

This view of HR as the corporate version of the Red Caps is one that’s by no means confined to the BBC, and there’s little doubt in my mind that language has a part to play in it.

Of course large organisations – all organisations – have to have rules and where there are rules there need to be people charged with policing them. But HR has many other functions, including that of ensuring that people enjoy agreeable and conducive working conditions. The problem is that the language of authority and discipline seems to spill over into these other areas of activity, where the damage is compounded by the arcane vocabulary – a weird cocktail of psychobabble and management-speak – peculiar to human resources.

In all the years I’ve worked in business, some of the most incomprehensible gibberish I’ve ever heard has emanated from human resources departments, also some of the most toxic language. Having said that, I have to add that there are many caring, well-intentioned people working in HR, and that I believe this is largely a sin of omission, not commission. But it is nevertheless a sin.

The language we hear is part of the environment we work in, like the temperature of the room or the colour of the carpets. If it’s peremptory and impersonal at best, menacing at worst, it creates an atmosphere which, at best, makes it hard for people to feel engaged, at worst makes them feel they’ve been consigned to some kind of gulag.

I ran a writing programme some years ago for a local authority. When asked to show examples of what they considered to be bad writing, people invariably produced material from the HR department, including letters to staff who were on sick leave (often for reasons of stress) that would have been more than enough, it seemed to me, to push someone in an already fragile state over the edge.

People don’t realise quite what an emotional impact this kind of language has. Just this week we asked staff of a large cultural institution to do the same thing – bring along examples of good and bad business writing. ‘I detest this language,’ said one person, her voice shaking, ‘I truly detest it,’ as she held up a communiqué to the entire staff about something or other from the senior leadership team.

The leadership team in question is almost certainly oblivious to the effects of their utterances. These leaders will never have stopped to consider that their staff may ‘detest’ – a very strong word – the language in which they are spoken to, and that if they do, they are very unlikely to follow their leaders with any enthusiasm.

Someone recently suggested to me that when it comes to modern business-speak the MBA has much to answer for. It’s interesting to note that this much sought-after qualification is a Masters in Business Administration, not in Business Creation or Business Leadership, and certainly not in Business Imagination. The language of the MBA is the language of process. From there, alas, it’s often a short step to the language of coercion and control.

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About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
Gallery | This entry was posted in Business speak, Business writing, Corporate communication, Jargon, Language, Leadership, Management speak and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Sin of omission?

  1. James Robertson says:

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Jamie, if your observations could land on the desk or in the in-box of every HR boss, and indeed of every boss, in the land? It is astonishing that so many with power and authority over others, either fail to understand or wilfully ignore the damage their insensitive use of language has on those they (presumably) want to perform more enthusiastically and effectively. This is true of both the public sector and the private. The brutality of language in business is of course encouraged by the likes of shows such as The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den, where to be offensive (in both senses), sneering, dismissive and self-aggrandising is portrayed as the only way to achieve your goals.

    • I agree, James, and the effects can be equally undermining whether the language is used deliberately, as by the appalling Alan Sugar and his ilk, or simply by default to that impersonal organisational jargon which owes so much to the culture of measurement imposed by regulators and public sector paymasters.

  2. MarkieVee says:

    I detest HR – “Human Resources” not people, with feelings and rights, just “resources” to be pushed about as the bosses see fit – lets go back to the good old days of the “Personnel Department” at least that indicates the employee is a “person”.

  3. Faye Sharpe says:

    Thanks Jamie. MBC’s rule ok!

  4. Jamie, I can only agree with you. Language is a powerful thing, and when words are served like cold steel, as they so often are in internal business contexts, there are casualties. The damage is psychological and long-lasting. You spoke about the need for rules and the need to police them in large organisations. Why are rules only made to protect the business? What about the need for civility in the treatment of employees? If we must look on it in terms of profitability, there is a business case in favour of the kind treatment of employees.

    Our organisation embraces an alternative to employment, and it’s generating good results. People are civil to each other, because we depend on each other. There are alternatives.

    • Nicely put, Robert. Mutual respect and a healthy acknowledgment of mutual dependency have to be at the heart of it. Their absence is one of the reasons so many organisations are so dysfunctional.

  5. John Ainley says:

    Hmmm, as an Ex HR Director, who always wanted to be called something related to my passion for the job, I understand the criticism and have seen the sometimes chilling wording that HR teams use. Please remember that ‘we are all fighting a great battle’ within ourselves. Most people enter HR to do good. HR is often not highly regarded by business leaders & is used as a way of avoiding an honest but difficult face to face discussion. It’s hard for junior, untrained HR people to resist this when you are not as influential as you would like to be. The key is bravery & support, the HRD has to be the grit that creates the pearl. The HRD has to stand for the culture and vision of the organisation, live it and speak it…and that is sometimes very hard to do. Lets have a few kind words for HR teams and help us to be better. As a lifelong student of Mr Dark Angels himself, John Simmons, I have always tried, but not always succeeded, to use language that is clear, honest and moving. I wonder whether the complaints about HR are sometimes an avoidance of holding those tough conversations with our people, it is easier to blame a function than face up to difficult conversations about people’s livelihood.

    • Thank you John, and good on you – I hope you manage to take your message of honesty and compassion into some of the murkier reaches of the profession! And I know there are many of you entirely deserving of kind words.

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