languageWith a title like that, you’re probably expecting me to rail against some of our favorite HR and recruiting buzzwords. And as frustrating as style-over-substance buzzwords can be — not to mention how much fun it can be to toy with them — I actually have my sights set on a different language problem that exists in recruiting and HR.

Really, the language problem I’m talking about isn’t one specific problem. It’s more of a general trend, comprising a constellation of different linguistic issues, and all of these somewhat separate problems overlap. To start, they all stem from the way we use language when it comes to talking or thinking about talent. More importantly, all of these problems lead to the same result: critical misunderstandings between employers and employees.

The point of language (for the most part) is to communicate — to transfer some piece of information from one person to another. But there seems to be a general trend in HR and recruiting towards using language to do the exact opposite: to obscure valuable information instead of share it.

As I said above, there are a few different iterations of the overarching trend, and in this post I’ll address the three types of language misuse that I’ve seen most recently. That being said, I’m sure these aren’t the only ways we mess up. “We” is the keyword in that sentence — we all make these mistakes, and you’ll see that the three examples I’m writing about are pretty widespread. Also note that, because the language problem is so pervasive, it affects pretty much everyone who takes part in the hiring process: HR, employees, recruiters, candidates, etc.

1. Talking About the Big Picture, but Rarely Mentioning the Brushstrokes

As Great Place to Work CEO China Gorman pointed out over at TLNT, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2014 “Work and Well-Being Survey” brought the disheartening news that only 52 percent of employees trust their employer — or, to use the survey’s exact words, “believe their employers are open and upfront with them.”

And it turns out that trust is tied to employee engagement, the feverishly pursued dream of (nearly) every company. To quote the APA study, “Employees experienced higher engagement when they had more positive perceptions of their employer’s involvement, growth and development, and health and safety practices,” and you can’t have “positive perceptions” of an organization you don’t trust, can you?

Gorman rightfully points out that we we should focus on trust before we worry about engagement, and what surprised me most about this suggestion was that it was news to me — and I’m sure it was news to a lot of people. But shouldn’t I have already known that trust was a building block of engagement? Why did that never occur to me?

I think it’s because, in HR and recruiting, we have this tendency to talk in terms of the big picture while glossing over the brushstrokes — the little components that actually build the picture, without which we can’t even have a picture. We talk a lot about engagement, but that’s an immense concept. The APA survey operates on the following definition of engagement: “a positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication and absorption.” There are a lot of moving parts in such a comprehensive state of mind, but we rarely take the time to talk about those parts.

And, when someone asks, “Well, how do I achieve employee engagement?” the answer is almost always “Culture!” But that’s an even bigger concept than engagement — culture is the sum total of all the people in your office, who are themselves the sum totals of everything in their lives, and so on, and so forth. That’s a lot to deal with, but we aren’t dealing with it. We’re trying to build houses without buying bricks (or whatever material you want to make your metaphorical house out of).

If we want to do more than bang our heads against walls, we need to follow Gorman’s lead in breaking down these bigger pictures into their smaller concepts. “Engagement” is a massive and intimidating concept; “trust” is something we pretty much all understand. Let’s work with the things we know now to build the things we don’t know yet.

2. Our Specialized Terms Can Be Baffling

Every industry has its jargon, and that jargon can be difficult for outsiders to understand: drop me off in a biotech lab, and I’ll spend the day slack-jawed and utterly numbed by the sheer weight of specialized language.

But the HR and recruiting industries are different from biotech: whereas an employee in a biotech setting is going to be dealing with other biotech employees who speak the language, HR  professionals and recruiters often work with people who are not part of the industry. Therefore, these people don’t quite speak the language.

So maybe you’re an HR person charged with onboarding the new accountant. Maybe you’re a recruiter looking to source a Web developer. Whatever the case, you’re regularly interacting with people from outside the profession. What’s more, you’re using very different language to talk about the same experiences. What you see as “dispositioning,” for example, the candidate sees as “not getting a job.”

I understand the draw of jargon — it can be useful to have a shared code — but jargon isn’t always necessary, and I’m not certain it’s a good choice when your industry’s whole purpose is working with outsiders. Plus, using terminology like “disposition” moves us away from the human beings we work with and into the realm of corporate abstraction. Not to say that you should tell candidates you are no longer considering them for a job by shooting them a “sorry, bro” email. But alienating, disorienting corporate speak is little better than the black hole of the ATS.

3. Disconnecting Words from the Real World

Much has been made about whether or not paper resumés are obsolete — I’ve made some of the commotion myself, with HireArt’s help — but I’m sure there is one thing we can all agree on: resumés never tell the whole story. That’s why interviews exist.

Despite this being nearly universal knowledge, we still rely on ATSs that filter candidates according to keywords. We make lists of words that hiring managers want to see on resumés. It’s kind of insane, because it’s like we have so much faith in the power of language that we’ve taken it to a terrible extreme: privileging language over the actual information it represents.

Eventually, the connection between language and fact is totally severed. The Careerealism post I linked to above was based on a survey conducted by the Harris Poll. That survey asked hiring managers and HR professionals to rank the best and worst words for job seekers to use on their resumés. Not skills. Not experiences. Words. 

Will the words someone uses on a resumé prove their worth as a potential employee? Absolutely not, but we’ve gotten to a place where we confuse the words with the skills they’re meant to represent — the old map/territory fallacy. Yes, language is an awesome tool for communication, but it’s supposed to be just that — a tool. A means, and not an end.

So What?

Language problems are potent: they create misunderstandings; they spread misinformation; they lead to inaction or actively detrimental actions. As HR and recruiting professionals, we either don’t pay enough attention to language, or we pay too much attention to it. We need to strike the right balances. We need to break concepts down into manageable, actionable pieces. Our language needs to be human and humane.

Of course, we can’t just rewrite the HR/recruiting script and start anew tomorrow. These language problems are ingrained in us. What we can do, however, is take a more careful, considerate, and critical approach to the words we use —  as well as the words people around us are using.

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