Annoying Workplace Jargon Includes ‘Employee Engagement’

Imprecise phrases can muddle the message

By Dana Wilkie Sep 11, 2014
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The next time a supervisor asks you to help “leverage our investment in IT infrastructure across multiple business platforms,” hand her a copy of Accountemps’ 2014 survey on what HR managers consider the most annoying business buzzwords.

Doing so is not likely to earn you brownie points with said supervisor, but it may send this message: However trendy, meaningless jargon tends to confuse workers, which means that no matter how brilliant the boss’s idea is, it may never gain traction if no one can decipher what the boss is saying.

“Leverage,” “dynamic,” “paradigm shift,” “core competency,” “synergy” and even “employee engagement” are among the terms that 600 surveyed HR managers found grating and overused, according to Accountemps, a staffing service for accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals. The survey results, released Sept. 4, 2014, reflect the responses of managers from U.S. and Canadian companies. Accountemps commissioned similar surveys in 2004 and 2009.

“Employee engagement is a very, very broad term,” said Bill Driscoll, Accountemps’ New England district president. “You could instead talk about things like ‘How is morale?’ or ‘How do employees feel about this subject?’ or ‘What’s communication like in the workplace?’ ”

Workers typically use jargon, Driscoll said, either to impress others or because it’s easier than finding precise language for what one is trying to say. The downside to using jargon, he said, is that “you lose your audience.” 

“People stop paying attention, and the phrases become meaningless,” Driscoll said. “A senior person uses this jargon and assumes everyone understands it, and the people who report to that person don’t want to ask for clarification, so what you have is a breakdown in communication. That’s one of the dangers.” 

Driscoll explains the often multiple meanings of the following terms, which were identified as the most annoying buzzwords in the three Accountemps surveys: 

  • “Dynamic.” “Maybe it means we’re rebuilding a department,” Driscoll said. “Maybe it’s used in a situation where there’s been a lot of turnover. Maybe a manager is introducing new procedures.” 
  • “Deep dive.” “Maybe we’re going to look at a situation or problem and analyze all aspects of it,” he said. “Or maybe we’re going to talk in-depth about who will be responsible for what.” 
  • “Bandwidth.” This could refer to the amount of time and resources needed for a project or to the range of skills an employee has. 
  • “Paradigm shift.” This could mean a major change in a company’s values, goals or structure. It could refer to a radical change in personal beliefs. It could indicate that an organization is replacing its previous way of marketing with an entirely new approach. 
  • “Core competency.” This might refer to the things an organization is best at doing, or it could refer to the products that define a company. 

To help employees use more-specific language, Driscoll suggested offering public speaking classes. “From a presentation standpoint, it’s really important that you communicate your points, clarify your points and make sure you’re listening” to feedback from your audience, he said. There are also educational seminars and online resources that can help workers be more precise and articulate. 

If the use of buzzwords is widespread in your organization, consider creating a “buzzword jar” and asking workers to drop a quarter into it each time they’re caught using jargon. The proceeds can go toward a fun team-building event. 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Also See:
'Banish Buzzwords in the Workplace' YouTube video, "Weird Al" Yankovic, July 2014

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