Enterprise Software

The problem with corporate terminology


In a recent blog, Ramon Padilla, an experienced IT manager, took issue with the term "Human Capital Management." He says it bothers him because it implies that employees are stock, money, or properties. Several people agreed, but several others took issue with his interpretation of the words, saying that, although its name may not be the best it could be, the concept of Human Capital Management is admirable.

I can see both sides. I think it's admirable that someone somewhere is realizing that employees are assets. I believe that some managers need a structured way to make use of that concept. But I also believe that the words we choose to describe something can be detrimental.

Of course, there's the other end of the spectrum. I once had a friend whose position was "VP of People." That has to be the most nebulous title in the world. Was Assistant God the second choice?

The word "subordinates" has always bothered me when referring to one's staff. It probably shouldn't bother me—one definition in the dictionary refers to it as "belonging to a lower rank or order," which is true if you're looking at an org chart. But it makes me uneasy. (By the way, a second definition for subordinate is "subservient or inferior.")

It just sounds elitist to me. It doesn't help that one of the most insufferable egomaniacs I've ever met relished the term. In fact, the promise of being able to toss that word around was probably what fueled this guy's burning desire to become a manager in the first place. Sometimes he softened and used the term "my people." (I think Moses finally got him for copyright infringement.)

I know subordinate has military origins, but the military has its own goals. I read someplace that the purpose of boot camp is to condition soldiers to fulfill all given orders promptly and without questioning, which when you're talking about life and death, makes perfect sense. But I think it's a little extreme in the corporate environment.

And I'm not talking about political correctness. I think that concept has become a parody of itself. (Or maybe I'm just sensitivity-challenged.) No, I'm talking about the expectation that words can bring.

Think about how words can condition our expectations. For example, remember when that thing you slept on was called a mattress? Manufacturers have now raised the price of a box set to astronomical levels, but they can do it because they're marketing it as a sleep system. (For the price they're charging, a sleep system should come with pre-counted sheep and a NyQuil drip.)

But I digress. I guess my point is that if Ramon has an initial aversion to a term, that's his right. And he's probably not the only one. Do you have a term that you don't particularly like?

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

30 comments
jrcarter
jrcarter

Subordinate. A rather degrading term in most cases. In a corporate environment, I prefer the term "direct," as in an employee that reports to a supervisor or manager.

seanferd
seanferd

Firstly, I have to say that Toni Bowers "digression" was utterly fantastic, and I would suggest maybe she should do a comedy album, uh record, no a cd --whatever, as a post-retirement project. An excellent writer, she'll have tons of material to work with. Anyway, my thing is this: insubordination. Works great in the military, but I had a particular manager who liked to invoke this term whenever any idea threatened his little world. No one was getting in his face, yelling, or mocking him, that is there was no personal attack against him. The manager told this one fellow that he was being insubordinate after asking for ideas, in a group setting. Several people made the same suggestion, or thought it was a good idea. Manager says "no," and gives a reason. So this "insubordinate" fellow voices an idea for a change/workaround, quite politely.(Everyone else had the same, fairly obvious, idea also.) Manager responds with a charge of insubordination before my fellow can even finish his sentence. Horrible manager. Point is, I think some management types like to use the insubordination-word indescriminately, or for personal power reasons. Sometimes, entirely out of context. They also seem to have in common the trait of punishing their best and smartest workers, while rewarding lazy types who are just hooked into the manger's buddy system.

mad tabby
mad tabby

If you're not upper management, your a resource - to be used up until you break and then replace, you are no more important (in their view) than the copy machine. This is why more and more companies are brining in long-term temps and "consultants". You've been with the company 15 years, and they call you a consultant? But they just see you as a cog, and if you're injured, or go nuts, they just kick you to the curb, and never think about you again.

david.simpson
david.simpson

I once met someone who's title was "eVangelist". Their role like that of an e-business manager for a bank.

delphiniumeve
delphiniumeve

Did anyone else see the article on another site about the overuse of the title VP? It costs the company nothing to dish out a new title without giving a raise (frequently done)and no appreciable change in duties. Financial companies are notorious for this behavior. As for me, I try to use the term colleague where possible. All the folks I work with are valuable to the organization and I do not attempt to apply the term subordinate even if they are at a different level on the org chart. People have value...some more than others, but I let others pass the judgement for a reason. If I perform a job review, I even try to be honorable in that sphere as well. Folks generally still know if they are the weak link without totally being a jerk about it anyway.

ls1313
ls1313

For some reason, the corporate use of the term "counseling" for chewing someone out has always bothered me. The first definition of "counsel" is to give advice. The general term "getting counseling" (at least in the US) usually means someone who is getting help for personal problems. However, in the corporate world, "counseling" an employee typically means that a boss is telling them that this is their last chance to straighten up or they will be fired. Granted, some companines are a little nicer about it than others, but that is generally the upshot. Having sat in on one of these in an old job, it doesn't seem like the "counseling" session is very helpful to the employee, except maybe to "advise" them that they are about to be canned! If one doesn't know the Corporate America definition of the word, one could be tempted to think that companies who will "counsel" employees having problems at work really want to help them straighten out whatever is causing the problem, when the reality is that the company just wanted a nicer synonym for "warning employees of imminent job termination" for the handbook. I proposes replacing "counseling" with "forewarning" or "admonishment." Those terms are a little closer to what typically goes on! OK - got that off my chest. Thanks!

sales
sales

Your bosses probably love the term 'subservient' in secrecy and laugh about it when they are the only ones in the meeting room. Would you prefer a more Spy/Agent term such as 'asset'.... work an asset while their are useful, then discard them. I heard this term used at a speech, "Our capital assets are our senior developers, we need to harvest their wealth of knowledge and invest in their skillsets before their potential is diminished." This statement left me wondering wheather redundancy was approaching for some of us (me), and if the speaker was an accountant.

t.rohner
t.rohner

got a new job title instead. "Vertical personal transportation manager"

Tig2
Tig2

Decisioning. You come to a decision. The process to get there might be called compromise, discussion, debate, or even threats. But decisioning??? Solutioning. You develop a solution, create a solution, consider a solution. Right-sizing. This is a "don't get me started" thing. There are a myriad of others, some of which I will admit to using in a sentence (Resourcing, anyone?)but will say that I am increasingly weary of words that just don't mean anything. Can't we just go back to communicating?

barry.padgett
barry.padgett

I seem to recall a Sunday Morning cartoon (Born Loser?) where the manager is firing an employee. The caption was along the lines of "Don't think of it as us firing you. Think of it as we're downsizing by one."

EastExpertG
EastExpertG

Whoever I am and wherever I am in corporate ladder, I totally refuse to be a "Resource". I like good ole' "Personnel Director" much better. Personnel, sounds like the plural of "Person" in this case. And this is what it should be -- a collection of persons, each moving in the same direction.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

When corporate HR wants me to set up network accounts for a new user, the title of the e-mail is "New Resource". The first time I saw that I expected to read about a printer or a shared drive.

darury
darury

As a friend of mine explained, getting your MBA is learning 3 things: 1) People are your most valuable asset. 2) If profits are down, you release your asset to increase profits 3) Replace and repeat.

Fregeus
Fregeus

..which is for a big international consulting firm, we are not employees, we are members. Members of what exactly??? With all the corporate positive attitude/PR propaganda, i sometimes wonder if I'm not in a new form or cult.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I wasn't aware of that actually. I do occasionally go but I try to find alternatives to wallyworld. Yes we have them here in the near arctic. They elbowed out Woolworth/Woolco, KMart, Towers, Kresges. My company is about 50 years old, that might give you a hint about corporate culture. James

JamesRL
JamesRL

We are associates. But thats a long standing holdover from the 70s. Its sounds fine, just don't think it means much. James

Photogenic Memory
Photogenic Memory

I'm kidding and I'm also watching a Voyager Marathon this week at home. It's is common place in companies to dehumanize their employees. I've had a lot of different jobs in my life spanning from factory work, telephone, dog grooming, industrial, tech support, candle making, temp stuff... etc, LOL!. Almost every one of them had an underlying organizational chart that you followed as a chain of command to maintain efficiency and proper communication. However, Business owners and managers with poor people skills often take this Org chart as a type societal bible. And it's often abused in so many ways. There's nothing more insulting than working for someone who considers you no more than a commodity to be bought, sold, or traded. What's also insulting is the attempt to foist a sense of team atmosphere where there's no loyalty to begin with. I've worked for owners who felt entitled to hold you over hours becuase they were paying you a salary. If you protested then they would threaten termination. It can also be rough when you work for someone with less experience and considers you a threat to their position(and you'd never want their position ever!, LOL!). This has been around for a long time. It seems to have gotten worse since businesses run at light speed these days. Also business models now, dictate keeping minimal staff and a large workload to enhance profits. I guess considering people as easily replaceable drones compliments the sentiment(which is untrue). It's unfair and unjust; but, how do we correct it? Is it something that can be corrected? I don't know. Does anyone know other than to delcare a mass walkout for better treatment? I would really like to know?(please don't site win the lottery or open you own business as a solution becuase it skates the issue for most people).

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

As in "leveraging our assets". What's wrong with "use"? I was in a meeting two days ago and one of the subjects was departmental goals for 2008. One of the bullet items was the "Institutionalization" of a recently deployed software package. What the heck does that mean? If one more Open Source advocate uses the word "free" ambiguously, I'm going to drop them in Antarctica in July. Tell me it's no cost or it's open source code, but don't hand me any more of that "free as in speech / beer" nonsense.

jrcarter
jrcarter

How about "opportunity." When my supervisor presents me with an opportunity, it generally means "here's something that I don't want to do, so I'm going to make you do it, and I'm going to look like the hero for ensuring that it was done."

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

One of the manager's I support likes to use the phrase, "I have an opportunity for you." My answer? "I decline. I have enough work now without taking advantage of opportunities. Call me when you have a problem."

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

In that case I was discussing the information systems with the IT area and said that system X does not do Y function, system W does not do Z function. I was quicly corrected. Aperently a system's shortcomings are not issues to be resolved but "opertunities".

seanferd
seanferd

because it sounds cool, somehow it sounds driven and professional,and it [i] grows the brand. [/i]

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

TR needs to fix or upgrade there reverse proxy cluster or something. I'm getting three 404 errors for each cleanly loaded page so far today.

seanferd
seanferd

he's looking for traceroute results.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

That's a good call-out; we need to really leverage our bandwidth on this one. We can take that discussion offline though. Right now I'd really like to talk too the story before we get too far down the bunny whole. We need to focus here and keep 'eyez on the prize' or we'll never realize the goals of the project. Who says drugs don't have any place in business. I think I actually said something in that last paragraph but sobriety prevents me from fully understanding it. I just can?t help but go back over it though: Call-out? - I didn?t hear anyone raise there voice. It must be too mundane to simply suggest or point out something. Leverage our bandwidth? - When did the amount of work a person can accomplish in a given time frame become ?bandwidth?.. oh right.. it makes the suite sound really cool because they said something technical sounding. Take that Offline. - Is this meeting being conducted on IRC or some other network enabled medium? Last I heard, ?offline? was pretty much the default for us lowly meat-bags unless someone out there developed a cyberjack I don?t know about. Wait, is this meeting room actually in Second Life and everyone forgot to tell me I was a game sprite? (Sidenote, the use of preface ?cyber? is actually used correctly in this reference to electronic implants which mimic and/or enhance an ability within the body.) Talk to the storey, talk to the theme, Talk to the point ? Is it going to answer back? Hello little point in my presentation, how are you today? ?I?m fine Dave, how are you? As a presentation, I really think I?m going well. I?m really enthusiastic about the mission, Dave.? ? and ?story?, when did the them, formatting or colour selection of a thing become the story? Down the bunny whole.. this one kills me every time I hear it. Luckily, those times are few and far between. GAH.. freaking buzzwords.. When your power tie just doesn?t get the point across, you can always fall back on over-convoluted speech and misused technology terms to sound more important than you really are. I have to go wash the taste of buzzword out of my mouth now and maybe take a shower; I fell so dirty. To a degree I get "leverage" though it is a five dollar word where a ten cent word like "use" does just fine.

Canuckster
Canuckster

There is the biggie, the interchangeable terms "re-engineering" or "re-structuring" which sound like positive, pro-active efforts but have been hijacked by the blue suits on Wall Street who reason that they can make an extra 10 cent dividend per share this quarter by laying off 1,000 people. Guess they can enjoy their extra whipped butterscotch latte this month while telling everyone who'll listen, how constructive they have been. Next quarter will be someone else's problem.

GSG
GSG

I had a supervisor that referred to us as her "girls" or "gals". Obviously, we were an office full of all females. Later, we got a part-timer who was male, and he was NOT referred to as her "boy". I finally told her off one day. Now I work with someone in another department that does the same thing. I don't think she realizes how demeaning that is. I'd rather be referred to as a subordinate.

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