Jargon: War of words

Have you been ‘reaching out’ and sharing your ‘blue-sky thinking’ in order to ‘deliver added value’? Better still, have you ‘fast-tracked’ your ‘holistic’, ‘cradle-to-grave’ thoughts about ‘going forward’?

Haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about? To be honest, neither have I. That’s the thing with business jargon – it’s in danger of being confusing at best, and meaningless at worst. Nonetheless, it’s rife across the British workplace.

So much so, the Local Government Association (LGA) is the latest organisation trying to stop employees using it – by urging councils to cut out 200 jargon words including ‘stakeholder’, ‘revenue stream’ and ‘incentivising’, so that ordinary people can understand what is actually being said.

Such business-speak gems as ‘predictors of beaconicity’ and ‘holistic governance’ are off the menu, and council workers are also being urged to replace dense phrases such as ‘across the piece’ with the clearer ‘everyone working together’, and pointless words such as ‘actioned’ with the perfectly serviceable ‘do’.

“The public sector must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases,” insists Margaret Eaton, chair of the LGA. “Why do we have to have ‘coterminous stakeholder engagement’ when we could just ‘talk to people’ instead?”

The bad news is that HR – along with departments such as marketing and sales – is notorious for having created its own micro-language.

“On just one page of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) website, you’ll find references to ‘a new organisational paradigm’ and ‘achieving alignment between learning and strategic priorities’,” says Denis Barnard, director at consultancy HRmeans-business. “I’ve been an advocate of clearer HR practice for more than 25 years. What is the point of addressing people with high-flown terms? You run the risk of sounding pompous. The CIPD should start the trend by cleaning up its act and giving a better lead.”

Word of warning

Particularly hated phrases used by HR professionals include ‘applying resources’ (instead of putting people in place), ‘disintermediation’ (cutting out the middle man), ‘cascading’ (communicate), and – wait for it – ‘strategic staircase’ (plan for the future).

“If not everyone is absolutely clear of the exact meaning of a particular phrase or word, then there is a real danger of misunderstanding,” points out Sean Mills, senior client partner at the Centre for High Performance Development. “In times of economic uncertainty, it’s even more important for communication to be clear.”

Even the most jargon-friendly managers struggle with the term ‘human capital’ and have little idea what it means, according to a study by the Institute for Employment Studies. The research concluded that using incomprehensible jargon makes it less likely that HR will secure buy-in and support from the top – something the study recognises as being crucial to the success of any HR initiative.

Marie Clair, spokeswoman for the Plain English Campaign, is cynical about the very term ‘human resources’. “One of the department ‘rebirths’ frequently mentioned by the public as being pointless is ‘human resources’ instead of ‘personnel’. I think there should be a campaign to bring back the ‘P’ word,” she says.

Verbal claptrap is by no means exclusive to HR, however. Research by serviced office space provider MWB Business Exchange recently found 56% of Brits use jargon such as ‘in the loop’ and ‘re-baselining’ (although a web search shows MWB is failing to take its own advice, since it uses ‘in the loop’ on one of its own web pages).

Lazy language

Large companies were found to be the worst offenders, with 98% of employees admitting to using such phrases every day, compared to 25% at smaller businesses. Sales and marketing departments tended to use jargon the most, followed by senior management, and women used it more than men. The most annoying phrases were found to be ‘think outside the box’ and ‘blue-sky thinking’.

“Using jargon in the office has got completely out of hand,” says John Spencer, MWB’s chief executive. “A lot of the time it comes down to laziness, as buzzwords are used to save time instead of thinking about the most appropriate phrase.”

Corinne Mills, HR adviser at recruitment website Monster, says jargon can be used to mask uncertainty or ignorance. “It can also be used by people aiming to assert their superiority – the common misconception being that we are to blame when we don’t understand something.

“In addition, it can be a way of trying to show exclusivity, encouraging the concept that only those who understand the language are ‘in the club.'”

Verbal assault

There are few greater champions of plain-speaking than former BBC director general Greg Dyke. In one classic instance, he apparently told staff to “cut the crap” and had a series of yellow cards printed to berate anyone who used meaningless jargon.

Other organisations have, like the LGA, identified the words and phrases that are most over-used and irritate and confuse people. Some have gone one step further – turning to e-mail and web filtering technology to flag up and block the words they’ve banned, or having a competition to reward those who go the longest without using them.

Nescot, a Surrey-based further education college, has taken a more subtle approach, bringing in a journalist who has never specialised in education to eradicate the scourge of Learning and Skills Council and government jargon in its literature and website, in the hope that staff will follow suit.

Meanwhile, professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers is educating its board to de-jargonise, encouraging individuals to hold each other to account if they slip. “Every member of the board is very clear on the objective of having an engaged workforce,” says head of advisory services Kevin Ellis. “If people don’t understand what is being said from the top, how can they be engaged?”

Donna Miller, HR director at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, admits the firm has had a big problem with jargon, which – because it operates across five countries – can cause “no end of confusion”.

“The two things we’re doing are mentioning the issue at the beginning of meetings, and asking managers to pick people up on it,” she says. “But it’s not easy. I slipped up myself only today by telling someone we need to ‘drop back and punch’. My colleague looked at me as if I was crazy.”

Cutting jargon is a challenge, agrees Simon Jones, chief executive of Investors in People UK. “Our research found almost half of employees that use jargon admit to using it without thinking. But it is vital managers take a lead by avoiding jargon where at all possible. Our study showed managers who use it can be perceived as unconfident.

“The research also found that staff feel colleagues who use it are untrustworthy, or trying to cover something up. Most worrying of all is the research suggests jargon can create a barrier between managers and their teams.”

Creative writing

But jargon does have its advocates. “Provided individuals are speaking the same language, it speeds up communication, creates a shared purpose and ensures everyone knows what is expected of them,” says Ruth Spellman, chief executive at the Chartered Management Institute.

Jackie Nunns, chief executive of charity Kids City, agrees. “I’m all in favour of cutting out meaningless jargon, but a great deal of it is merely shorthand for repetitive phrases. For example, ‘stakeholders’ refers to all the people with an interest in the organisation, while ‘revenue stream’ refers to particular money and where it has come from. ‘Incentivising’ is borrowed from the marketing world, and I’m sure we all know what an incentive is.

“Elsewhere in our society the creation of new words, particularly if done by youth or new technology, is celebrated. Hands off our jargon!”


  • Blue-sky thinking – thinking up ideas

  • Cross-fertilisation – spreading ideas

  • Income streams – money

  • Delivering added value – doing your job well

  • Low-hanging fruit – quick win

  • 360-degree thinking – taking everything into consideration

  • Singing from the same hymn sheet – thinking similarly

  • Get all our ducks in a row – get organised

  • Helicopter view – overview

  • Think outside the box – think differently

  • Fast-track – speed up

  • Looking under the bonnet – analysing

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