Top Ten Corporate HR Buzzwords: Communicate with Caution

One of my pet peeves is when people use buzzwords to try to impress others or without realizing their audience doesn’t understand what they mean. All organizations and cultures have their buzzwords, and we all use them to some extent – sometimes intentionally or sometimes unintentionally. Corporate HR is no exception, so allow me to poke some fun at those of us who ‘play in that space’ (see #6).

Here’s my current top ten:

#10 – Executive coaching – A senior HR leader listed ‘executive coaching’ as a skill on his resume. When I asked him about his training and experience in this area, he said, “I once corrected a senior executive. The next day he changed his approach. If that isn’t executive coaching, I don’t know what is!” Good for him, but let’s just say his understanding of professional coaching fell a little short of how expert executive coaches would define it. And instead of helping his audience understand executive coaching, he confused them further and misrepresented his skills by misusing this buzzword.

#9 – Cultural alignment – These two words are squishy enough by themselves. Put them together, and it’s like trying to hold pudding in your bare hands. If you even know what you mean when you say this, please follow it up with layman’s language to make sure your audience understands.

#8 – Strategic business partner – I think what you mean when you describe yourself this way is that you don’t just do payroll and document vacation schedules. But what do you do?

#7 – Associates – We’ve moved from workers to labor to personnel to colleagues to co-workers to associates. Basically, we’re talking about the people in your organization. I don’t have a problem with ‘associates’ but it sounds too formal.  Still warming up to this buzzword.

#6 – Learning space  It is good that we’re using ‘learning’ instead of ‘training’ since it better conveys the intended outcome, puts the focus and responsibility on the learner versus the trainer or the training. But the ‘space’ still doesn’t sit with me. “We play in that space.” “He doesn’t work in that space.” Let’s save ‘space’ for satellites and astronauts.

#5 – Employee lifecycle – I hear the ‘Circle of Life’ song in my head from the Lion King when you use this term. However, when you explain this means the person’s experience from the first to last day with the company (and not birth to death), I’m good.

#4 – Talent management – We HR people know what we mean. But does anyone else? Eyes tend to glaze over upon hearing this term.

#3 – Workforce redundancy – I like Scott Adam’s observation several years ago of the corporate progression over the years from ‘firings’ to ‘lay-offs’ to ‘down-sizing’ to ‘right-sizing’ to – his future prediction – ‘happy-sizing.’ We haven’t quite made it to Dilbert’s ‘happy-sizing,’ but ‘redundancy’ is not much better.

#2 – HR transformation – Can you say, “happy-sizing in HR?” I knew you could.

#1 – Human capital – Years ago, when I first heard this term, I asked someone more seasoned than I was, “why?” She said, “human resources sounds too impersonal and degrading, like we’re just cogs in a wheel.” She reminded me, “people are our most valuable assets.” Hmmm…how is ‘human capital’ any better? And did she understand that calling people ‘assets’ or ‘capital’ isn’t exactly going to ‘engage’ them. (Note: ‘employee engagement’ was a close Number 11 and didn’t make this list).

You now have my permission to shout “Buzzword Bingo!” the next time you hear someone use one of these buzzwords as they ‘add value’ ‘delivering business results’ (numbers 12 and 13, respectively). Just make sure to explain what you mean if you use that term.

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Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. He often describes his role as a leadership consultant and executive coach, and, in doing so, he admits to using buzzwords himself. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.