Language in the Workplace: Choose carefully.

Choose your words with care.
Choose your words with care.

The language we use in the workplace has been on my mind a lot lately. I think I’m starting to realize how tired I am of our usual words and phrases, and I can’t escape how archaic – and harmful – they feel. There’s some compelling research out there that shows how the words we use affect how we perceive situations and people. Someone once told me that “Words are spells,” and it makes me wonder what kind of workplaces we’re conjuring up with labels like “employee,” “subordinate,” and “manager”.

Here are some of the words I’ve used and have heard used to describe people who are paid by a business: employee, subordinate, direct report, underling, laborer, and worker. What kind of tone do those words set? What do they say about our beliefs about this group of people? When I see those words, the themes I think of are: disempowerment, control, and condescension.

Here are some of the words I’ve used and have heard used to describe people who are “in charge” of others in an organization: manager, supervisor, and director. How do those words sit with you? What kind of images do they evoke? When I see them, I think of other words like: micromanaging, hierarchy, and babysitting.

What if instead of “employee” or “subordinate” we used “contributor” or “collaborator?” I wonder how our workplace attitudes and policies would change if we started viewing those who work at our organizations as people with something to contribute instead of people just clocking in for a paycheck.

What if instead of “manager” or “supervisor” we used “adviser” or “mentor?” Would that change how managers view themselves and their role? Would they feel less pressure to micromanage and start asking instead, “How can I support you?”

If language is as powerful as I think it is, it would serve all of us well to pause the next time we use these words in our workplaces.

Can you think of other work-related words that should be replaced? I’d love to hear about them in the Comments section below.

2 thoughts on “Language in the Workplace: Choose carefully.

  1. I want to be a contributor and have an adviser! The word “report” is so boring and vague, but I can’t think of a good replacement. 🙂 I think that some job titles need to be changed to reflect what people actually do in their roles. I was in a meeting today with people from different departments, and we were asked to describe what we do for the company, not just give our name and title, and that made for a much more interesting conversation.

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    1. Katy – I agree, “report to” is also super annoying! Maybe “share with” instead? Job titles are tough since it’s hard to sum up what someone does for 40+ hours/week in a few words, but I love the more imaginative, less staunchy ones!

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