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Should HR buzzwords be banned?

HR neologisms –sometimes helpful, sometimes annoying

By Brian Kreissl

Do HR professionals seem particularly guilty of inventing new jargon and buzzwords? It seems as soon as we’re used to referring to an idea or concept by a certain name, someone comes along and changes it – often by telling us the new term means something radically new and different, and somehow the old terminology just doesn’t cut it anymore.

I know business in general is often accused of inventing all kinds of gobbledygook, but can we in HR be singled out especially for criticism in this regard? In my mind, the answer is, “Yes and no.”

While it’s true we have our own constantly changing vocabulary in the HR profession, that’s no different than any other profession. Words sometimes need to be created to describe specific concepts, and jargon functions as a kind of shorthand for people in certain lines of work. It’s much easier to use one word rather than many to describe something – provided people know what you’re actually talking about.

When I took an editing course earlier this year, one of the things we learned is to avoid neologisms (newly coined words or phrases that haven’t yet entered the lexicon of everyday usage).

Depending on the audience, that can be very wise advice. But what if your audience consists of people in your own professional group and that profession seems to thrive on the creation of new words and phrases? What if you’re viewed as a dinosaur for calling something by its old name?

Let’s examine a few HR neologisms and find out just how new and innovative those terms really are, and if there’s a rationale for replacing the old terminology.

Personnel, human resources and human capital management

“Personnel” is of course a dirty word to most HR professionals nowadays. Supposedly, personnel represented the “bad old days” of transactional HR management, which involved little more than hiring, firing and recordkeeping.

Yet, I’ve had conversations with people outside the profession who still like personnel better. They feel “human resources management” just sounds cold. “I’m a person,” they argue, “not a resource.”

I have some sympathy for those folks because, to me, the newer term “human capital management” sounds cold. I know, the idea is people should be viewed as capital assets, just as buildings, plant and equipment are. This ties into the cliché that “our people are our greatest assets.”

However, I remain unconvinced. “Human capital management” just sounds like something a consulting company created to drum up more business by sounding trendy and sophisticated.

Orientation to onboarding

I once had a colleague who passionately believed onboarding to be much broader than the traditional concept of orientation. I was sceptical at the time.

However, just thinking about what comes to mind when you hear “onboarding,” it really does have much broader connotations than orientation. While orientation seems to suggest a one-time seminar or a very short initiative during a new employee’s first few days on the job, onboarding just sounds more strategic, holistic and long-term.

Empowerment to employee engagement

Remember how everyone was talking about empowering employees back in the nineties? While some commentators believe employee engagement is just a new-fangled term for empowerment, employee engagement is about more than just empowerment.

It’s about increasing employee commitment to their jobs and the organization, and the degree of discretionary effort. One way of doing that is through empowerment, but it isn’t the only way. Therefore, I’d argue employee engagement is broader than empowerment.

Compensation to total rewards management

‘Total rewards management” might seem a bit trendy, but this is broader than simply talking about compensation. Total rewards looks at all of the extrinsic rewards (including salary, bonuses, benefits, pensions and perks) as well as the intrinsic rewards inherent in the job itself. “Compensation” is still used, but today it refers more to cash compensation.

Employer branding

One HR neologism that seems to be an entirely new concept is employer or employment branding. The idea is that all organizations have some type of “brand” or perception associated with what it might be like to work there.

Organizations look at creating and managing that brand and positioning their company as an employer of choice. This is a new and exciting area of HR – one I don’t think really had a proper name ten years ago.

A healthy, innovative profession

Therefore, other than “human capital” – which I’ve already noted I’m not too fond of – I believe new HR terms frequently have something new to add to the discussion.

While we shouldn’t shoot down people for using old terminology, the fact that the lexicon of HR continues to evolve and expand shows how healthy and innovative we are.

Just don’t ask me to call it “human capital management.” Maybe in five years I’ll accept it, but I’m just not there yet.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at For more information, visit

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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