Are You Talking Swedish?

 The HR Language Barrier

Let me be honest right from the start.  I can’t speak Swedish.

I can speak English, French, and Spanish. But if anyone speaks to me in any other language, I’m lost.  Luckily for me, and for all the other English speakers who don’t understand Swedish, many Swedes speak English.

If I meet one of the huge number of English-speaking Swedes, they will be able to speak to me in my own language. They are not likely to speak to me in Swedish, and expect me to understand.  They would be perfectly at home speaking Swedish but they realise that it means nothing to me.

HR professionals can speak the language of those they work with. But all too often they choose instead to speak their own version of Swedish, (i.e. HR-speak). This is despite the fact that a perfectly good alternative is available.

Let’s admit an unpalatable truth here.  For people outside the HR function, some of the language used by the profession is a source of amusement. A joke.  We are passionate about the need for the HR function to improve the way it communicates with everyone else, and at the same time improve its standing in the eyes of others.

The HR profession is immensely skilled at coming up with good ideas. But we then shroud them in so much jargon that no one else knows what we are talking about.  How many good ideas have been ignored simply because HR professionals failed to describe them clearly? They are made to sound like some quirky fad rather than something which would improve performance.

An obsession with euphemisms, acronyms and an aversion to plain English. All these things do nothing but undermine the message of any communication and isolate HR from everyone else.  HR-speak gives the unfortunate impression that HR professionals work in a silo which has nothing to do with the rest of the organisation. It also suggests that they persist in using their own language, despite knowing that most other people don’t understand it.

‘HR needs to eliminate the jargon of its specialization and begin to link its work more explicitly to business value’[1]

‘Not in the real world’, ‘in a world of their own’, ‘out of touch with the real world’. All of these expressions are used by non-HR employees to describe the perceived isolation of the HR function from the organisations it is meant to serve. The very language used by HR professionals plays a key role in creating this impression.  These jibes should not be dismissed as merely the words of the unenlightened, or viewed by HR professionals as some sort of badge of honour showing how difficult their job is.  These expressions are a sad indictment of the way in which HR has drifted away from both the organisation purpose and its employees.

If the concept of ‘Start with the Business’ means aligning all our HR activity with the organisation’s purpose, then it must also encompass aligning our language with our audience.  The bottom line is don’t use HR-speak when speaking to an audience whose first language is plain English.

To be fair, every profession has its own jargon.  Doctors, lawyers, accountants and many others can chat away amongst themselves in language unintelligible to the rest of us.  But these professionals usually change tack when dealing with people outside their profession.  In short, they normally speak their version of Swedish only when in the company of fellow ‘Swedes’.

Within the HR profession, the Learning and Development function is particularly vulnerable to this syndrome. The fondness for dressing simple ideas in needlessly complex language has for decades obscured the message of valuable training.

‘Perhaps one of the most off-putting attributes about the execution of HR initiatives is their proclivity to become bogged down with slogans and buzzwords that, rather than energize a company’s communication efforts, often obscure meaning and do more to annoy than inform’.[2]

The most effective measure that HR could use to raise its standing with the rest of the organisation would be to completely overhaul its vocabulary, and start speaking the same language as everyone else. Decades of under-appreciation and underselling ourselves would be undone by cutting out the HR-speak and use plain language.

Let’s keep our specialist vocabulary, our version of ‘Swedish’, for conversations with fellow ‘Swedes’, the HR professionals who can understand it.  For everyone else, let’s stop burying good ideas under a thick blanket of unnecessary jargon, and use plain language.

Richard Scott is Chief Researcher for HR in flow Ltd.

[1] Rethinking Human Resources in a Changing World, KPMG and the Economist Intelligence Unit, 2013

[2] Communicating for Engagement, Jake Holwerda.



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