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.