“Business language is a desert,” says Don Watson, author of Weasel Words and Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language. “Like a public company, the public language is being trimmed of excess and subtlety.” In business language is now productivity-driven.” Watson suggests that events leading up to the GFC played a role in subverting meaning and exacerbating corporate doublespeak.
In everyday conversation, employees find themselves using words and phrases they would never use outside the office. “Executives at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind,” says US writer William Zinsser. “We have to teach people that corporatese is bad; after many years of conditioning to the contrary, your average manager is not going to come to that conclusion out of common sense.” Persuading managers to drop the corporate babble may hinge on proving its negative effects on company morale. Managers’ inability to speak plainly is the number one irritation among employees in the UK. In a survey of 1500 staff by law firm Eversheds in 2006, 97 per cent never wanted to hear again their bosses come out with phrases such as “singing from the same hymn sheet” or “thinking outside the box”.
Megan Bromley has worked in human resources for 10 years and is a head of employee experience at RedBalloon. “Take KPIs – what does that even mean? There’s an assumption that everyone understands the acronym. We don’t call them that. Every three months, we ask employees to set themselves three personal promises. One will be related to a number relevant to their role, another to a project to be completed and the third, a learning goal.” Other terms that bug her are “human capital” and “talent management”. They turn people into numbers and no one wants to be treated like a number she says. Bromley suggests the reason some HR departments dress up what they do in convoluted language is because some HR professionals still feel they have to prove they contribute value to the rest of the business. “In some organisations, HR has a seat at the table and in others they don’t. HR is still seen as the department that has to ‘sell’ itself.” Bromley believes to some extent this explains their use of jargon.
The toxic effect of jargon is to suck all the personality, humanity and candour out of a workplace according to Brian Fugere, co-author of a book entitled engagingly: Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide. After a career spent in the consulting industry, Fugere says the sheer amount of hype and artifice led him and his colleagues to develop Bullfighter, a software program that helps find and eliminate jargon at work. Using the tool to examine companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Bullfighter found that straight-talking companies were outperforming those that used vague, opaque language. Deloitte Consulting in the US also released data showing that straight-talking firms that communicate clearly with investors and customers outperform those who obfuscate.
Is using jargon safer?
Despite the impact on the bottom line, fear plays a part, says Fugere. “Executives have been trained to avoid, at all costs, saying something that might come back to haunt them, so they are prudently cautious.” For them, using words that mean little is safer than straight-talking, he suggests. “HR people are among the worst offenders, particularly because they often sit down the hall from the employee relations person who has to deal with lawsuits, complaints and other unpleasantries resulting from people who say too much.” David Brown, the national lead partner of human capital in consulting at Deloitte, suggests what lies behind business-speak are primal human behaviours. “On the one hand it’s a tribal thing, creating a language that distinguishes the in-group from outsiders.” But he also thinks the nature of modern commerce determines management speak. “Once upon a time you would report to the analysts annually on how the business was doing, but now it’s twice a year and it’s common to have quarterly reviews. The lifecycle of everything is getting shorter and the pace required for people to come to grips with things is such that looking for shorthand becomes almost necessary.” Fugere admits: “It takes courage, but authenticity and straight talking can be dramatic career enhancers. Once people begin to see the profound benefits, it becomes easier.”