Lost in translation – does HR speak a different language?

by Nicola Middlemiss03 Feb 2015
The saying goes that you’re only as good as your word – but that word is worthless if nobody else understands it. So why is it then that some HR professionals still rely on language that other departments find difficult to interpret? HRM investigates.

“A lot of the time people in HR speak a different lingo to execs or people on the front line,” says GoodLife’s VP of People and Culture, that’s why there’s often a disconnect between different departments.

After starting in sales and working through management, Free sees the company from both sides: “I really understand the business lingo and jargon and sometimes I feel like I’m translating between HR professionals and the business,” she says.

It might come as an unpleasant surprise, but a study by the Australian Human Resource Institute found that an astounding 80 per cent of managers outside of HR either did not “understand or were unsure about what the human resources department does.”

While we can hope that Canada fared better, a global Mercer study suggests otherwise – it found that 84 per cent of business execs admitted they had no more than a “moderate” understanding of the return on human resources in the organisations.

Of course, we’re not disputing the fact that HR has a real and valuable impact on a company’s bottom line – but it seems most organisations’ execs don’t understand exactly what that is and, even more worryingly, aren’t concerned with finding out.

So how can HR get the point across?

“Simplify the language used by your staff,” suggests HR pro John Sullivan. “Ensure that all HR communications are dominated by business words and not by jargon, acronyms and the latest HR fads.”

“There are many business-oriented words that HR needs to use more often, including terms like productivity, revenue impact, quality, competitive advantage, innovation, risk management and impact on profit,” asserts Sullivan.

VP Alana Free agrees – “The more HR professionals that can speak in business lingo and can bring results instead of hunches, the better. That will make a huge difference.”



  • by Cathy Knight 3/02/2015 4:25:02 PM

    Some good tips here for HR professionals, except we've been saying this for years and not a lot has changed within HR. It's time for HR to clearly identify its role strategically and operationally, and then to look inwardly to ensure it has the right capability to deliver into the future. Proactivity is one critical capability I don't see much of within HR. Another concern for me is reading here that HR needs to stop communicating basing judgements on "hunches". I would have thought that 'intuition' is a valued trait in 2015 especially given what we now know about how the brain works, noting that every brain is different, every brain operates uniquely based on a different set of life experiences. Why would we devalue the "hunch" when often it's all we've got to go on - it's a good starting point at the very least. People aren't machines - we don't and often can't always deliver reliable and consistent outcomes.

  • by Ed Moss 23/02/2015 10:26:54 PM

    Sorry folks, but I find HR overvalued, overstated, by and large dishonest and unfortunately, over here.

    It is by far the most dysfunctional and headless-chickened department of any business.

    In fact, HR can be summed up by its inventor, Frederick Winslow Taylor, who, because of failing eyesight, threw in the towel regarding studying law at Harvard to become, instead, an apprentice pattern-maker and machinist (Machinist? With failing eyesight?)

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