HR Speak when HR Speaks

'Language is everything' says Stephen Fry, the polymath who seems to be everywhere on TV these days. He loves language – it's play, purpose, precision and plasticity. This video clip reveals Mr. Fry in full flight.

Then there is the language of utility; language as a function. So the question is how do HR practitioners use language? The answer to that can, sadly, be answered with the description 'poorly'.

In a recent meeting with the HR leader of one Australia's biggest companies, a man with 20 years of industry expreicence, reflected on why it is the HR is often not fully respected in organisations. He went on to say (and I paraphrase) "Why is it, despite the critical role HR plays in building culture, building core capabilities, instilling effective leadership, managing the talent pool, managing performance and providing appropriate and efficient frameworks, processes and platforms for best leveraging human capital and the strategic development of the people agenda, HR still struggles to be seen as a key strategic player?"

And there it is. A paragraph full of HR speak. What he was saying is logical but it does not clench the heart or rotate the neural crops. It's kinda flat.

Another ditch to jump is that HR is often seen as playing a policing role, hiding behind political correctness and tip toeing through the messy mine field of human beings being human beings by relying on the language of neutrality.

This happened to a client of mine who works in a large (massive) organisation. He asked one of his people to 'pull their socks up'. After 6 months of enquiries, interviews, counselling sessions and endless, endless meetings he was formally admonished and had an official warning placed on his file for harassment. I kid you not. Now before anyone shouts 'context?' let me assure you this man could not be a more well intentioned, consistently respected genuine to the guts leader. One person, using HR as their personal pc police, almost destroyed my client.

Along the way this person also dragged endless hours of waste into the business, secured swathes of paid leave including a fully paid 6 month sabbatical at the end of the process to 'recover from the stress and psychological damage they experienced.'

Let's remind ourselves of the phrase 'pull your socks up' – a universally applied analogy to denote 'improve your game' and the like. A fairly benign request to step up, play hard, join in... and you see the result.

But, here's the challenge. How can HR professionals change the game here? In our experience HR people come from the highest intentions... they are people people who want to make the proverbial difference so many call for and crave.

Does it start with language? Stephen Fry would suggest that it always does. Even words 'human resources' have a subtle dehumanizing vibe. Kind of sucks the juice out of adult human beings trying to work well together in building good stuff for good reasons.

The challenge here is nothing short of immense. In a culture where the reflex of many is 'if I'm in pain find someone to blame and sue them'. Caution seems sensible and sane.

But at what cost?

Perhaps the 'call to action' is to 'roll-out' a series of 'focus-groups' to ask the 'stake-holders' for their 'input' because 'at the end of the day, going forward it's about buy-in and engagement in the process'. It dampens the spirit doesn't it?

Yet human beings historically have always found ways out of the mire or mediocrity that can keep us stuck and afraid and it seems language is rope to drag us to higher ground and the firm soil of possibility. Is rope the trope?

Here are some ideas to chuck onto the table...

1. Create your own HR language/terminology... do not be seduced by conventional 'HR Speak' (Google has played in this sandpit a little)

2. Use analogies and metaphors to illustrate ideas. Talent are like ping pong balls – tough, durable, fast and brilliant when used well – easily crushed and useless when badly handled/managed.

3. Create a different vernacular for HR as a function (payroll, platforms, processes, systems, recruitment, onboarding etc.) and HR as a strategic player in the business.

4. Tell your story well, loud and often.

5. Understand how to build followership as you develop leadership.

Ode have a number of Speakers who work in this space and can bring revelation, insight and practical (and challenging) approaches to evolving HR to the place we all know they should be and have to be.

For more Information on booking Colin James please contact ODE Management on +1 877 950 5633 or

For further information on Colin James or to enquire about making a booking for your next conference or event please contact the friendly ODE team


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HR Speak when HR Speaks

Colin James does not fall neatly into a category as he is a superb Speaker, Facilitator, Trainer, Educator, MC, Consultant and Coach.

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