Mincing Words

Mincing Words

Posted on 24. Apr, 2009 by in Blog

By John Sumser

(April 24, 2009) What you say and how you say it matters. The other side of the political correctness debate is a simple idea. Your language says a lot about how you see things. While I agree with Heather’s frustration, the proper alternative is not a free for all..

What you call people and how you say it can be offensive. You may be astonished (as I have been from time to time) at the way people react to the simplest cultural references.  On the one side of the argument is being clear about what you mean. On the other side is being clear about what you don’t mean.

We’re all acutely aware of the damage that’s been done to inter-gender communication. As Heather noted, it’s now impossible to slide a compliment across the gender gap. Defeatists and agitators say this means we should end brute force language surveillance.

I think we have a good ways to go.

A huge part of the problem in our industry is that we are really imprecise with our language. The people of HR and Recruiting are willing to use unexamined language in a way that none of the other professions do. Ill conceived metaphors about human beings litter the HR landscape. Like most metaphorical conversation, the end result is bad communication when people start believing the literal meaning  and missing the idea.

Here is a very simple idea. In the 21st Century, it is against the law almost everywhere, to own another person. Any language that hints at the idea of that kind of ownership is both offensive and misguided. It’s easy to slip and there are not readily available replacement words.

Human beings are not capital. They are not assets. They are not resources. They are not talent. Each of these ideas compares people to forms of wealth and raw material. Each of these notions objectifies people. It is demeaning. It is a bad way to communicate the underlying idea.

It makes for bad decision making.

People are not a list of skills and accomplishments. A job is not a buzzword search string. Work is not a formulaic application of capital to a task.

No, people are dynamic and complex. The way that they fit into jobs (or don’t) is surprising and mysterious. The very work that they do changes because they are doing it. The way that they interact with the team to produce results is only vaguely predictable. They seem to perform better in circumstances where trust and transparency are the norm.

In Heather’s assault on the Cult of Nice, she says:

The Cult of Nice demands that everyone conform to one set of rules that is politically correct, conflict-free and most of all, their way. It?s an insidious form of codependency where Nice is the highest good. The focus is entirely on the behavior of others and how it makes the cult member feel. It makes substantive discussion impossible.

Wah, wah, wah. Substantive discussion can’t take place when the fundamental language is demeaning. Ms Bussing’s answer is to kick away the constraints. But, in some cases, the rules are not harsh enough. Ironically, Heather’s position boils down to the same thing she argues against i.e., not making you feel bad makes me feel bad.

Meanwhile, we are letting our business leaders make gross judgment error by allowing them to think of the people who work for them as material objects.

So, the /component/option,com_jcalpro/Itemid,28/extmode,cats/”>how to get cialis next time you hear someone use the phrase “Human Capital”, please tell them that “Humans are not Capital, owning people is against the law.” If they backpedal and say, “I mean they are assets”, tell them that “people are not property of any kind”. Force the dialog.

In this instance, the question is better than all of the answers you could get.

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32 Responses to “Mincing Words”

  1. Heather Bussing

    24. Apr, 2009

    Sumser, You ignorant slut.

    I’m still in trial and can’t adequately respond right now, except to point out that you are whining about how we discuss things just as much as I was. And not being nearly as funny.

    Have a nice day.

  2. Sandra McCartt

    24. Apr, 2009

    May i be the first not to mince. The definition of acquisition: the act of contracting or assuming or acquiring possession of something. For those of you who proudly wear the title of acquisition specialist perhaps it requires an understanding of what the words really mean. It wouldn’t make your mama proud to tell her bridge club that her kid was assuming possession of people for a living. Aside from the fact that in my opinon it sounds phoney as hell. It has no rational meaning.

  3. Levy

    24. Apr, 2009

    “Meanwhile, we are letting our business leaders make gross judgment error by allowing them to think of the people who work for them as material objects.”

    Or is it the shareholders – even the casual investors – who “demand” a reasonable roi from 65% of a company’s operating capital?

    There’s a time for people and a time for human capital; the larger issue is not language but actual follow through: The CEO who speaks of human capital but leads an organization that supports its “human capital” with real programs and actions is far preferred over the CEO who speaks glowingly of the people but in reality the place is highlighted by the half-eaten presence of Cassius, Judas, and Brutus.

    In the absence of perfection John, which do you prefer?

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes language is just language.

  4. John Sumser

    24. Apr, 2009

    Without a doubt, a landlord who maintains the property is better than one who doesn’t. And, of course, better prison conditions are preferable to worse. I hear that Thomas Jefferson was extremely kind to the people he owned.

    For the vast majority of history, the wealthy have been able to buy and sell human beings. The language we use to talk about the people in our organizations has its roots in that. It’s really useful to examine the implications.

    How hard is it, really, to change the way you talk about something, Steve? Isn’t the “in the absence of perfection” dodge just another way of saying, “I don’t want to piss my owners off?”

    Run the experiment, I dare you. Take a week, examine your conversations for traces of ownership language, point them out and see what happens. I think you’ll be surprised by the degree to which people don’t want you to rock this particular boat.

  5. Scott Boren

    24. Apr, 2009


    Then I am sure, after this article you have penned, we will NEVER see you use the term Human Resources (HR) again….right?

  6. Jim Durbin

    24. Apr, 2009

    Let me go head and slip politics in here. John is absolutely right that the words eventually determine who we are.

    That is the purpose of them. Talent Acquisition is used because its purpose is to find people, get them to work for you, and take advantage of their labor for the benefit of the company.

    There’s no harm in acknowledging that, and it becomes a question of whether it offends you. It did offend me, so I went out and started my own company. Now, my clients own my work product, and instead of a manager telling me what to do, I have a bank and accountant and lawyer telling me what to do.

    The discussion is a bit too much Don Quixote for me. We have politicians who change “legal graft” to “bailout” to “stimulus,” to American Recovery. The Employee Free Choice Act takes away the right of the free ballot for union members, and then uses the government to arbitrate in favor of the union leaders, all in the name of “helping” union members. It’s an old trick.

    John, you’re right to say that the words we use affect the way we approach people, but do you have a better word to describe the uses we demand of people in the workplace? if that’s the case Human Resources should be replaced with the management protection and risk reduction department. Recruiting should be changed to the resume sorting department, and Sales should be changed to “Making stuff up and pretending they are highly paid because most don’t do math well enough to know when they’re getting screwed.”

    And us social media marketing folks should have our titles changed to “the more I write online, the closer I get to bankruptcy.”


  7. Jeff Yocom

    24. Apr, 2009

    Completely agree with your premise that language is frequently misused and better care should be paid to the messages we send via the words we choose. In an increasingly global and diverse population of candidates, there is greater risk and possibilities about how those words are interpreted.

    Completely disagree with your view on the words recruiters use to describe the skills people possess. While I never found the word “asset” appropriate when referring to a candidate, I am most definitely a “talent scout”.

  8. Dave Mendoza

    24. Apr, 2009

    Fantastic post John

  9. Libby Sartain

    24. Apr, 2009

    Hey John,

    This reminded me of my days at Southwest Airlines. We didn’t want to call our people function Human Resources. The were people, not resources.

    (And besides, HR in the airline industry referred to a specialized cargo….”Human Remains”.

    We thought we coined the phrase “People Department”.

    I later did a survey and found two companies that did that at about the same time we did.

    It caught on a bit.

    I think the concept of a job, and an employee will eventually fade away.

    We will have work to do, and people to do it.

  10. Jonathan McLeod

    24. Apr, 2009

    Hmm… Not sure where I would come down between your post and Heather’s.

    Definitely some food for thought.

  11. Sandra McCartt

    24. Apr, 2009

    Durbin, that is hilarious. Things change but not really. A starving writer is no longer in a garret. Now a starving writer is in front of his computer describing himself as a social media marketer getting closer to bankruptcy. Love it. And very true. :)

  12. Michael Sullivan

    24. Apr, 2009

    Very insightful.

    I prefer the term commodification rather than objectification, commodification is more total. Human Capital is a good example of this, but wage slave may be more precise.

    PC is just a smokescreen for manipulating embedded, and fixed, power relations.. The puppeteers still pull all the strings, and laugh, and occasionally cry, all the way to the bank

    Your comment about imprecise language rings true.
    How can language be precise when it originates from the unconscious and its applications are mediated
    through power relations and moral relativism.

    Human resources are just like natural resources:
    exploited and subject to market manipulation and fundamentalism. You rightfully infer that they are not human at all. Rather they are just a compendium
    of temporary and deteriorating skills. , Our culture is sadly one of fear and fragmentation.

    I hope we can wake up, speak sincerely., and realize
    our interconnectedness. For now, It’s healthy to be mad. as long as you are not locked up. Our inhuman culture leads the world in this. Still, there is a touch of hope on the horizon

  13. Heather Bussing

    25. Apr, 2009

    What happened to personnel? It’s succinct, elegant and well, personable.

  14. Karla Porter

    25. Apr, 2009

    Where did this professional relationship terminology emanate from?

    We sanitize human working relationships as we digitize them. We ‘bucket” and categorize them and have rules for them like products on shelves.

    This is a result of efforts to deny biases, create equality, rise up from and not repeat past errors of humanity. It has resulted in a litigious environment where we walk on egg shells in our HR professions.

    At the same time we suffer the oxymoronic onus to foster and preserve individuality and “human” relationships. John said, “Work is not a formulaic application of capital to a task.”

    Actually, that is a very clean description of corporate philosophy.

  15. Heather Bussing

    25. Apr, 2009


    I agree with you that substantive communication can’t take place when the language is demeaning. I did not suggest that running around offending people was generally a good idea.

    My point was that having to watch every word I say for fear of violating some imaginary right to never be offended seriously interferes with clarity of thought and communication.

    I still think that manners are important and useful–being rude doesn’t ever result in more open dialogue.

    What I was suggesting was a more difficult task than using kinder or more accurate language. I’m advocating the ability to get past “you hurt my feelings, so I don’t have to listen to you.”

    Effective communication is not about consensus or being Nice.

    Real communication requires patience and an open mind. I have to be able to see past my feelings and personal views and to try to understand an opinion or perspective that doesn’t feel quite right. It’s keeping my seat and trying to work with ideas that seem stupid, offensive, silly, illogical or all the other ways I dismiss concepts that don’t fit my personal view of reality.

    It takes courage to explore unfamiliar territory– especially when the reward is that I might be wrong.

    Here’s a silly, but good example. My son Alex woke up one morning and said he wanted ice cream for breakfast. I said, “You can’t have ice cream for breakfast. Ice cream is for dessert.” Alex thought a moment then explained that ice cream was milk and sugar and cereal was mostly milk and sugar too. So why couldn’t he have ice cream for breakfast? I said, “Have some toast with your ice cream.”

    It takes clarity, curiosity and courage to be willing to be wrong on a daily basis. It requires persistence when the terrain is difficult and the risk of miscommunication is high.

    It’s about coming back to an idea after I’ve rejected it.

    It’s about understanding another point of view as valid even if I don’t agree with it.

    I just don’t promise to always be Nice as I fumble my way through. And I’m willing to allow that others may not always be Nice either.

  16. Maureen Sharib

    26. Apr, 2009

    Fascinating discourse; related.

  17. John Sumser

    26. Apr, 2009

    Wow, Maureen, that’s remarkable.

    I’d really love to have answers for the very smart questions raised in this conversation. Sometimes I wish I could be an ideologue, always certain of the answer before the question gets asked.

    In this case, I have lots of questions and little in the way of prescriptive advice. I’m not really advocating anything here.

    I had a huge insight when Scott Boren cut straight to the chase, asking the penetrating question. “Can we expect you to act on this piece of insight?”

    I spent a fair amount of energy looking for the perfect rebuttal. The fact is that I can’t do my job (nor can most of us do ours) without using this language.

    That’s a tip of the hat to Steve Levy who noticed that some problems can only be fixed with great sacrifice and disruption.Is the embedded meaning of our professional language worth a shutdown of communications?

    Probably not.

    At the same time, that argument doesn’t mean that we should ignore the issue and consider the question resolved.

    We are problem solvers who work in the most complex arena of organizational life. We broker the relationships that create the value that drives the economy. We do this (when we are at our best) by paying meticulous attention to signs, nuances, hints, gut instinct and local politics. To suggest that we are an insensitive group is to miss the basic definition of our work.

    The answer to a clamped down politically-correct culture of niceness is not an inconsiderate free-for-all. It is the development of an environment where every voice has a chance and where every meaning is considered.

    So, I’ll continue to use the professional language, when its unavoidable. It’s my hope that you’ll think about the question and be careful when you use language that implies the ownership of human beings.

  18. heather bussing

    26. Apr, 2009

    I just sent Maureen’s link “May it Please the Court” to everyone I know. Thank you so much!

  19. Sandra McCartt

    26. Apr, 2009

    An interesting take on the word debate. I had a conference call with an HR Director i have worked with for 20 years this afternoon. After finishing our business i asked her how she felt about the trendy titles HR and recruiters are using.

    She laughed, said her boss (young & very sharp) asked her last week what she thought about changing her title to Director of Talent Acquisition. She told him she was not comfortable with that for two reasons.
    1. It was her feeling that upper management already thought that HR was a necessary but overblown bunch so coming up with a more overblown title would make for some rough teasing about did they not think they were important enough.
    2. Although we look for talented people and always think when we hire them that they are and will be productive. What am is supposed to do when i have to fire someone? Walk in and say, “Well Betty, you know i am the Director of Talent Acquisition and we have decided that you are not talent so i have to let you go.”

    Her boss laughed and said, “Uh, point well taken, i think HR Director is probably best left alone.” “Ouch, why didn’t i think of that”.

  20. Rayanne

    27. Apr, 2009

    It is the course of human nature to evolve: to change and with that, the words we use and their meanings evolve, as well…

    At RBC, the all out war against words like “talent” AND “acquisition” have provided sustenance and fodder for many a writer…

    In parts of the world, the definition of “marriage” is being challenged – change is eminent. Even the corporate/business world has borrowed this one.

    What really is the argument here? Does someone really believe that whoever coined “talent acquisition” was referencing “people ownership”? It was just someone trying to be cute and clever like “personnel to HR.”

    I can think of hundreds of words or phrases that have developed alternate meanings….
    just a few:


    I am sure you can think of a few, too.

    John, I enjoyed the post and it has been thoroughly “minced.” ;-)

  21. Maureen Sharib

    27. Apr, 2009

    John, Heather, I was struck by a couple things in particular in the “May It Please the Court” piece:
    *how civilized (read:polite) the Supreme Court was
    *the artist’s remarks about the male castration demonstrators – AHEM

    But about the first – notice it says:
    It is all about language, – the language of dissent and the search for meaning. There are faults, biases, political leanings, differences of philosophy. Unavoidable. They are human beings. But there is something else. It is friendly…the intellectual exchange of ideas. “In the court, your adversary is not your enemy.” How do people handle that? I wonder.

    John, I think some of your answers are contained within.

  22. Maureen Sharib

    27. Apr, 2009

    I MEANT CIRCUMCISION yikes! I musta’ been thinking about that Mike Rowe/Dirty Jobs video about lamb castration which is another entirely worthy subject…

    John, Heather, I was struck by a couple things in particular in the “May It Please the Court” piece:
    *how civilized (read:polite) the Supreme Court was
    *the artist’s remarks about the male circumcision demonstrators – AHEM

    But about the first – notice it says:
    It is all about language, – the language of dissent and the search for meaning. There are faults, biases, political leanings, differences of philosophy. Unavoidable. They are human beings. But there is something else. It is friendly…the intellectual exchange of ideas. “In the court, your adversary is not your enemy.” How do people handle that? I wonder.

    John, I think some of your answers are contained within.

  23. Steve Levy

    27. Apr, 2009

    I’ve noticed more and more that once love has been kindled between a company and a recruitee – especially one in something related to HR – there’s a negotiation process that revolves around the title: “I noticed that your head of HR is actually titled as the Supreme Galactic Commander of People and Personal Development; this just the company I want to work for but I’d like my title to be the Chief People Finder as the Manager of Recruiting doesn’t accurately reflect my passion. Is that okay with you? What? Oh no, I’ll forgo a sign on bonus for the title?”

    Libby – it was all those articles about you and SWA ;)

    Those damn Strategic Business Partners started this onerous and laughable mess even when they couldn’t read the balance sheet – but they still wanted a seat at the table.

    You can call it bisque, taupe, sand, shell, sandstone, barley, oatmeal, putty, khaki, wheat, mushroom, chamois, grain, champagne, clay, pebble, fawn, almond, buff, flax, cafe au lait, bare, flax, canvas, sandstone, biscuit, oakleaf, nacre, or cream but its still beige.

    Do the dang job.

    I’m surprised no one has as yet brought up the cultural and educational differences in language and meaning. Hmmm…

    As for your statement, “Sometimes I wish I could be an ideologue, always certain of the answer before the question gets asked”, well for one, you wouldn’t ask the question and two, you wouldn’t be such a fun-loving, provoking pain in the ass.

  24. Grace McAteer

    27. Apr, 2009

    This is amazing…in the 60′s it was “gal friday”, then 70′s we were referred to as “staffing” or Personnel company…there were NO “fees”, but temporary…late 70′s we started the “Liquidation Damage”…and onto fee based 80′s headhunter and recruiter…we sent people – now candidates – 3 max – to “strategic”-whaat…. hiring authority – never to the human resource dept but for paperwork (now new hire paperwork) – decision got made fast and life was a dream….this is all so funny to read….Chief Recruiter!

  25. Sandra McCartt

    27. Apr, 2009

    If you want the laugh of the year go to forum and read the discussion “Hackers”. The title for system security testers will convince you that language has gone over the edge. Words form mental pictures for me so i can just see this.

    Mom: Johnny tell us about your new job.

    Johnny: I’m a (go read it i can not write it)

    Mom: Oh my god, are you going to get arrested or are we going to have grandchildren?

  26. Rob Bialk

    28. Apr, 2009

    The genesis of the term “Human Capital Management” became popular at the same time HR was looking to get a seat at the table. In CFO magazine accountants were looking to value their people assets just as they would buildings, inventory and cash. Since PEOPLE generate goodwill, are intellectual assets, represent employer brands, inventions/patents… finance looked at how they could quantify this people asset?

    I personally like the term because far too often management looks at people as a payroll expense. I would rather be categorized as a human capital asset; rather than an expense.

    Or we could just all return to our personnel offices.

  27. Sandra McCartt

    28. Apr, 2009

    At about the same time the AICPA decided that the terms accountant, CPA, CFO, controller etc needed to be upgraded to something more dignified or important or something. They came up with the term “cognitor”. Most of the licensed CPAs thought it was the dumbest thing they had ever heard so it went into file 13 as the joke of the year.

    Since the only way to value or quantify people as a line item entry would be to value them based on what they were paid the credit to “bluesky “assets would have to be balanced by a debit to payroll expense. Or as goodwill is many times valued at three times earnings, human captial as an assest might be valued at three times payroll. That would be an interesting fair market valuation that might not fly. I don’t think that valuation made it to the balance sheet. At least i haven’t seen human capital listed on any i have reviewed lately. And how would you quantify/account for the people who did not generate goodwill, turned out not to be an intellectual asset, tarnished the brand etc. Inventions and patents are another catagory altogether.

    As asset has to be offset as or by an expense. If people were not an expense there would be no asset or reason to layoff anyone to cut costs. And if there were a layoff would there then have to be a reduction on the balance sheet to goodwill due to the layoff.

    Let’s return to our personnel offices. :)

  28. John Sumser

    29. Apr, 2009

  29. [...] 30, 2009) This story starts with an article called “Mincing Words” that I published over on RecruitingBlogs.com. The piece begins with the idea that our [...]

  30. [...] guru, John Sumser, ignited an almighty debate in the recruitment/HR community with his article ‘mincing words’. John’s argument is that widely used nomenclatures in our industry such as ‘Human [...]

  31. [...] Mincing Words [...]

  32. [...] 30, 2009) This story starts with an article called “Mincing Words” that I published over on RecruitingBlogs.com. The piece begins with the idea that our language [...]