It's Time for Employees to Stop 'Thinking Outside the Box'

News Updates

Most people in the corporate world are fluent in a second language, and they don’t even realize it. Those fluent in business jargon request “face time” with clients, grab “low-hanging fruit” and aim “at the end of the day” to reach their “target audience.”

Communication experts and HR executives say the original intent of workplace jargon was to coin a smart and succinct term that followed trends set by competing companies or admired business leaders. Now, jargon has evolved to a point where certain words and phrases have different interpretations among employees and senior executives.

“Jargon is a great way for leaders to shape their ‘at-work’ persona,” said Lisa Durante, senior manager of internal communications at a large accounting firm in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “Using corporate speak can be empowering and authoritative, and it can feel like you’re part of an exclusive club. [But] it also helps create distance between [leaders] and their people. As communicators we need to encourage leaders to drop the curtain and engage with their people as if they were someone they knew outside the office—respectful, yet without the ‘corporate-ese.’ ”

Buzzword Bingo

“Using industry jargon is an exclusionary tactic that has unfortunately become commonplace in companies around the world,” wrote Joe Stubblebine, vice president of corporate outreach at, in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “Jargon is the language evolution of a culture and any ‘outsider’ entering into that culture can be made to feel alienated. It puts one party in a position of ‘explainer,’ which is inherently a power position, while the other party is left feeling belittled or out of the loop. These qualities do not belong in a healthy work environment.”

In an informal poll, internal communicators and HR managers expressed annoyance with the following euphemisms heard in workplaces around the world:

  • A seat at the table … ” According to Gail Tolstoi-Miller, CEO and chief staffing strategist at Consultnetworx, this expression is used among HR professionals to show they are “sitting with executives.” Instead, she advises HR specialists to say they are charting the company’s vision with upper management.
  • Bandwidth. This term defines a person’s limitations at work, as in: “Does she have the bandwidth to take on more responsibilities?” Jack Appleman, author of 10 Steps to Successful Business Writing (ASTD Press, 2008), said communicators should replace “bandwidth” with a more straightforward word like “expertise” or “capability.”
  • “Doing more with less.” During the Great Recession, this phrase became popular, explained Amanda Haddaway, director of human resources and marketing at Folcomer Equipment Corp., because it is a “nice way of saying [a company] will have fewer employees or less budget money to accomplish the same—or possibly more—work as before.”
  • Global. Judy Shen-Filerman, founder of communications and leadership development firm Dreambridge Partners, noted that “global” has become a filler word that does not carry any real weight. Most companies use this phrase tritely,” she said. “Being global requires incredible self-awareness, observation of others and respect for differences so [workers] can collaborate effectively.”
  • Leverage. Meaning to describe how a situation or environment can be manipulated or controlled, “leverage” is “the ‘do you want fries with that?’ of corporate speak,” said Loren Yaskin, a Phoenix-based communications consultant.

“Leverage” is overused, and should be reserved for financial matters, advised Appleman. He suggested substituting “leverage” with “capitalize on” or “take advantage of.”

Yaskin recommended that internal communicators create a company or industry glossary of terms so employees can become more at ease with jargon. “Post it on [the company’s] intranet,” she said. “Create hyperlinks to words in the glossary whenever you use key words in e-communications.”

Simplicity Is Best

When it comes to delivering potentially bad news in the workplace, communications and HR experts agree messengers must know the audience, keep the message simple and not sugar-coat its delivery.
“An organization should not change its stripes depending on the message—good or bad,” said Michelle Roccia, executive vice president of employee engagement at recruitment firm WinterWyman. “When there is a culture of transparency, and communication is consistent, you establish an environment of trust.”

“Bad news is always hard to communicate,” added Dreambridge Partners’ Shen-Filerman. “If we discuss our humanity and discomfort with the situation—which is true transparency—it allows others to understand that we care, which is what most of us really wanted to know when bad news is communicated.”

Managers and HR professionals should keep these tips in mind when:

  • Discussing poor performance. There should be no surprises when it comes to a discussion about performance issues, said Roccia.

“It’s the manager’s responsibility to communicate regularly and openly about good performances, as well as the bad,” she said. “The employee needs to be made aware of any issues, what they can do to fix them, and what the manager needs to see in terms of change. A well-communicated, jargon-free performance feedback can help a mediocre employee turn the corner and become a top performer.”

  • Managing change. Patti Johnson, CEO of HR consulting firm PeopleResults, wrote in an e-mail to SHRM Online that when companies introduce a change, employees are most concerned with “What does this mean for me?” If a company memo is filled with comments such as “synergies” and “market alignment,” it hides what is really changing, she explained. “The impact to your audience is unclear,” she said. “Your trust is eroded, and [employees] turn to their peers and gossip in the hallways.”

“The role of HR should be to coach managers on the appropriate ways to deliver bad news, discuss performance issues, manage change and develop rapport among team members,” Stubblebine wrote. “One of the most valuable traits in a successful manager is having good instincts—knowing when/how to discuss touchy subjects, when to use jargon and how to ensure people feel included.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  To read the original article on, please click here. To