There is a concerted campaign to empty words of their meaning and HR is one
of the worst culprits
Humpty Dumpty was not quite right when he said: "Words should mean
anything I say them to mean." It is a useful enough dictum for realpolitik
and organisational skulduggery, with phrases such as ‘unwillingness to change’
becoming a devastating put-down, when it might just as easily refer to ‘taking
a principled stand’. But it does not quite capture what is taking place.
The trend in the workplace seems to be to use words to avoid having to
communicate. Saying something definite spells trouble down the line – from a
transgression-hungry press, or pedants who will pop up at awkward moments to
recall what you said before. So it has become better not to say things. Better
just to waft vague thoughtlets, emptied of precise meaning, that are designed
to slip unnoticed into the ether leaving only a faint whiff of something
There was a fine example last week when the Chartered Institute of Personnel
and Development and the Employers’ Forum on Age called for ‘a new vision’ for
the planned Single Equality Body (SEB). Unfortunately, they didn’t specify what
vision they wanted to see. Most people would judge a vision on its content, not
merely on its existence.
A ‘new vision’
They then concluded a long and conceptually void press release with the
remark: "The Government needs to work with employers to ensure we create
an SEB that really delivers on equality and diversity in the future."
Deliver what exactly? Maybe total equality among humankind. That would be nice,
but a mite ambitious.
Do they mean they hope the SEB is powerful? Because power in public policy
is largely about budgets, so if they do, they need to call for an expansion of
the funding of the previously existing equality commissions. Then the SEB might
be able to sponsor lots of discrimination cases against recalcitrant employers
and properly investigate structural inequality at work. Maybe that is not what
they had in mind.
A ‘new vision’, you see, is tame – a harmless, but indisputably go-ahead
thing to call for. ‘Delivery’, meanwhile, has become the frenzied catechism of
Whitehall managers trying to reform public services, so it sounds official and
in-tune with the predominant Blairite cant.
So it has been with ‘modernisation’, which has been used to impressive
effect during the firefighters’ dispute. The Government accused the Fire
Brigades Union of being opposed to ‘modernisation’, even though the union had
produced its own blueprint for modernising the service long before the current
strikes. The less ‘modernisation’ means, the more potent it is as a weapon for
Those naive critics who enjoy cruel sport with HR departments about their
mission, values and outside-the-box ‘isms’ miss the point. The aim is not
really differentiation of organisations, or getting employees to ‘buy in to
culture change’. The aim is safety.
Increasingly, there is a list of things organisations need to be seen to
take seriously and over recent years that list has suffered inflation. It is no
longer enough to produce goods and services – you’ve got to have a mission. It
does not matter if the mission wraps you up in paradoxes: many organisations
are now trying to think globally and act locally, to have determined leaders
who are big on teamwork, to have strong cultures that are also consensual.
The only way to survive in this sound-bitten environment is to dispose of
the significance of language and replace it with the new killer blandness.
Corporate communication has become rather like those attempts by
mathematicians to do away with speech altogether because of its impreciseness,
and instead just hold up placards with symbols on them representing
collectively agreed thoughts.
This is not the usual whinge about business jargon – itself just as much of
a cliché as the language it affects to despise. Jargon may be ugly and
contagious, but all professions generate it.
There seems as much point in singling out business managers as in believing
Americans to be uniquely bombastic. Philosophers can no more do without the a
priori than chartered surveyors can live without ‘portfolio mapping’. Jargon is
about inclusion and exclusion from specified communities. Using it is a badge
of belonging, but to be confused by it, or to pick someone else up on it, is to
announce in a graceless way that you are separate and remote. Saying ‘what
box?’ or ‘did you really say emotional buy-in?’ are, in truth, statements of
What is happening now is different. Clarity has become a manifestly
dangerous phenomenon. Fuzzy-edged vagueness, however, is a lithe and malleable
substance that will not come back to haunt you at inconvenient occasions – a
tool for not saying what you mean. That is why it has become an organisational
no-no ever to concede the existence of ‘a problem': it is too specific compared
with the infinitely preferable ‘issue’. In the modern world of work, the
victory of perception over reality is nearly complete. Esse est percipi, the
ancients said – to be is to be perceived.