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Put the Human Back in Your HR

Put the Human Back in Your HR

communicationDon’t let cookie-cutter language send the wrong message to employees

“You’re not a name. You’re a number.”

That’s the punchline to a story my colleague likes to tell about his high school. It was a very large school, with over 3,000 students. The first time he went to the guidance office, the receptionist told him to write his student identification number on the waiting list. When he asked if they needed his name too, he was given the response above.

“It wasn’t the warmest school,” he likes to say.

Unfortunately, many HR departments are like that guidance office, especially in large corporations. When you’re dealing with thousands of people, it’s all too easy for your language to become process-based and impersonal.

Of course no HR department would ever tell an employee they’re just a number. Not on purpose. But using the wrong language can send that message just the same.

HR walks a tightrope

This hit home for me earlier this month, when Accountemps put out a survey called The 20 Most Annoying Buzzwords and Phrases in the Workplace. It put the spotlight on chestnuts like “leverage”, “deep dive”, and “employee engagement”.

That last one really stuck out for me because employee engagement is a huge priority for HR departments. And yet it’s so emblematic of how dehumanizing HR language can be – for the very employees (people) they’re trying to engage (motivate).

Of course, this isn’t HR’s “fault” – for a couple of reasons. If you’re in HR, you often need to communicate in the language of strategy, and all too often that language has corporatespeak ingrained in it. When you’re making a presentation to the C-suite about your new “onboarding” process one minute, it’s hard to meet with a new hire the next minute and not tell them you hope their onboarding goes well. (As opposed to, say, their “orientation” or “introduction”.)

Second, HR is often necessarily steeped in regulatory language. When you’re writing a report on your “absenteeism policy”, it might feel strange to turn around and write an email to employees about “vacations” and “days off”.

Some jargon is okay between consenting adults. But using it with individual employees – the ones you’re trying to engage, or even motivate – can leave them feeling more like a statistic to fill a spreadsheet than a person the company is really invested in.

Authenticity inspires

Ideally, all internal communications should be in your company’s natural brand language. That’s the best way to use words to sharpen your culture – and unite the people in it.

So find out who owns your company’s tone of voice. Work with that person to craft your overall internal communications. And if that person doesn’t yet exist, find someone to take on the role. Maybe it should be you.

Of course, time and resources don’t always allow you to take such a comprehensive approach. So if you don’t yet have a brand language, or you can’t apply it to everything that comes from HR, start with your own communications.

Here are a few tips to help you.

Humanity checklist for HR writing

  1. Give it a buzzcut. If you recognize any obvious buzzwords or jargon in something you’ve written to employees, try rewriting it as you’d say it to a friend. You might not be able to get rid of all the jargon, but you can likely shave at least some of it.
  1. Give it the funny voice test. Read your writing out loud. If you adopt a funny voice at any point while reading it, that part is probably inauthentic. Try to say it a different way.
  1. Give it the stolen identity test. Take your company name, and any other identifying “marks” out of the writing. Replace them with the identifying marks of another company. If it still reads the same way, try to reword it so it could only be coming from you and not some generic, faceless corporation.
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Anelia came to New York from London to continue The Writer’s mission in life: to change organizations through the language they use. They've been doing just that for companies like Unilever, Cisco and PwC, and have been at it for 14 years. Heading up The Writer's US office, Anelia is helping some of the world’s biggest brands realize the power of words to change how people see them, stand out from the competition, make their customers happier, shape their culture, and make and save money in the process. As a seasoned writer and trainer, Anelia’s thoughts and words have appeared in books, newspapers, design annuals, magazines, blogs, and up the sides of Guinness bottles. She was foreman of the Writing for Design jury at the 2014 D&AD Awards.

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