The Benefits—and Pitfalls—of Office Jargon

May 8, 2024

Love it or hate it—every workplace has its own jargon. If you’re a newbie, unfamiliarity with those terms can leave you feeling confused (and maybe a bit like an outsider, too). If you’re an old timer who knows the vocabulary list backward and forward, being able to wield those terms yourself can make you feel like a member of an exclusive club.

Merriam-Webster online offers this definition of jargon: “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.” It also presents this second definition: “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.”[1] Both types of jargon are prevalent in the corporate workplace. And more times than not, “office speak” lands squarely in both categories simultaneously.

The various parts of an organization each have their own specialization, and sometimes jargon can arise when a department or team needs a shorthand for communicating about its particular area of interest. Over time, some of that vocabulary can get picked up and adopted by other parts of the organization and eventually spread throughout the entire industry (and even farther afield).

For example, consider some of the jargon commonly used by those of us in HR, management, and talent acquisition professions:

  • ATS: applicant tracking system
  • churn: employee turnover (or loss of clients/customers)
  • HCM: human capital management
  • HRIS: human resource information system
  • soft skills: skills that aren’t position specific but are very useful in the workplace (such as time management, communication, and organizational skills)
  • talent management: everything that goes into recruitment, hiring, onboarding, retention, and all the other processes related to staffing
  • skills gap: the discrepancy between the skills needed for a particular role (or industry) and the skills that potential candidates for those roles actually have

And of course we also have to work with a ton of jargon about laws and agencies that have anything to do with compliance, benefits, and employment issues. These include FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act), FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), and many others.

All of this is terminology that’s widely shared among people in those fields. When we communicate with nonspecialists or “outsiders” though, we usually need to define or gloss many of those terms just to be absolutely certain they are understood.

Jargon gets a bad rap, but it doesn’t always merit that negative reputation. Sometimes it can be a very efficient way to communicate. (For example, “ATS” rolls off the tongue far more easily—and is quicker to type—than “applicant tracking system.”) Problems arise when jargon impedes comprehension (a downside that can be mitigated somewhat by defining the terms) or when it crosses the line into cliché.

  • How many times have you read (or written) “win-win”? It’s a useful shortcut to describe a situation from which no parties emerge as losers. But it’s been used so much that sometimes it comes across as cheesy.
  • As a term used to define a change in direction, “pivot” hit the mainstream during the COVID-19 pandemic, when organizations had to scramble to adjust to complete upheaval in the business world. Now broadened to include attempts to put optimistic spins on failed (or at least less successful than desired) endeavors, the term has achieved widespread use—perhaps so much so that people are getting tired of seeing it.
  • Consider, too, “take a deep dive.” Diving (and deep diving) in water has been around since time immemorial. But “a deep dive” in the sense of a thorough examination of something only recently entered the lexicon. This piece of jargon gets lots of use by people who are presenting information and want to assure their audiences that it has been carefully researched and considered. “Deep dives” of this sort aren’t bad, but this term seems to be increasingly applied to content that doesn’t actually warrant it.
  • “Think outside the box.” This piece of jargon has been overworked so much that at this point I suspect everyone is prepared to jettison whatever box or other receptacle their thinking is currently stuck in and instead simply “come up with new ideas and perspectives.”
  • Perhaps the least helpful piece of jargon to achieve widespread use in the corporate vocabulary in recent years is “It is what it is.” This incredibly vague phrase is basically the text version of the shrug emoji. It can actually undermine an argument by making it seem that the speaker lacks confidence in (or knowledge about) what they’re saying. If you’re trying to describe a situation that can’t be changed and that everyone will just have to deal with as it is, just say that

I hope you’ve appreciated this deep dive into workplace jargon. (See what I did there?) It’s okay to use jargon—we all do—as long as you use it mindfully and with awareness of how it’s being received. Sometimes it can be a useful shortcut when communicating with certain audiences. But if you find that it’s getting in the way of expressing meaningful ideas clearly, it’s probably time for you to pivot and use different language.

[1] “jargon.”

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