Understanding the Evolving Terminology of the HR Profession

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Talk to anyone in the HR profession, and they’ll probably tell you that the role of HR has changed dramatically over the last few years, particularly since the pandemic. Once regarded as a back-office function focused on administration, compliance and processes, HR has now evolved into a more strategic role, with an emphasis on culture, business objectives and employee experience.

This shift is being reflected in the language used to talk about HR. Many leaders believe that the term ‘human resources’ is now outdated and it’s time for a rebrand. As such, there has been an increase in the number of companies using the term ‘people’ rather than ‘HR’ to illustrate how their employees are not simply ‘resources’; they are individuals who are part of an organisation that puts their people first and supports them to grow and develop in their careers and achieve their goals.

“The language is now focused on people and creating a great experience and a great workplace,” remarks Jennifer Healy, people and culture director at Vivup. “It has taken time for HR to be recognised at the senior table, but the pandemic has been an opportunity for people and culture (P&C) leads to show their true value.”

Job titles are also changing to reflect the shift away from HR to a ‘people’ or ‘talent’ focus, she adds. “We have chief people officers, talent development managers, talent acquisition managers, workplace experience leads, employee engagement experts, heads of wellbeing and diversity officers.”

Katy Edwards, founder of Forest Digby, believes that HR terminology has become much more inclusive. “We’re seeing far more focus on inclusivity and diversity and that’s a natural reaction to the fact that more and more business networks are developing and feeding straight into the HR function, especially at a strategic level.

“Beyond this, terminology and language are becoming softer – perhaps as the people management aspect comes into play, and HR becomes more neutral,” she adds. “For example, there’s a lot less ‘corporate speak’, and an avoidance of jargon. Instead, language has become more human; for example, there will be more focus on words such as ‘team’ or ‘employees’, which replace the rather robotic terms, ‘staff’ or ‘workforce’. These language changes are being seen everywhere, from policy updates through to job descriptions. It’s important to embrace these changes throughout any internal communication as it aids the growth and development of these companies.”

Similarly, the term ‘performance management’ has evolved into something much more user-friendly, with terminology such as ‘improve to succeed plan’ becoming more commonplace.

“Performance management has a more caring and upbeat attitude due to its makeover,” remarks Jess Munday, co-founder and people and culture manager at Custom Neon. “It all comes down to creating an environment at work where people are inspired to pursue success and ongoing development. This perspective moves the focus from evaluation to empowerment.”

Performance management processes are becoming less top-down and restrictive, adds Sophie Bryan, founder and chief workplace culture consultant at Ordinarily Different. “The old world of annual reviews and ratings is giving way to more feedback, coaching and development opportunities. This speaks to how organisations are realising that harsh performance appraisals often demotivate rather than motivate. The emphasis now is on creating a nurturing environment where employees can thrive.”

One other example is the term ‘human capital management’. In a world where employee experience is increasingly prioritised, this term now seems glaringly outdated and transactional.

“Human beings are more than capital to optimise and extract value from, so focusing on and elevating the experience of employees as people with wants, needs and aspirations represents a culture shift for many companies,” says Sophie Bryan. “Employee experience encompasses everything from the physical work environment to the emotional and social elements of work. These terminology changes are requiring a rethink of decades-old HR conventions to create more supportive and inspiring environments where people can grow and do their best work.”

So, what exactly is driving this shift in HR terminology?

“The change is being driven by a greater focus on people as individuals, rather than the collective ‘human resource’, where they were viewed almost as a commodity and what was good for one, was good for all,” comments Jill Bottomley, director of The HR Dept. “The recognition for employees to have a ‘work-life’ balance continues to evolve, yet without a split of ‘work’ and ‘life’, with each person considered an individual whose personal needs are being met.”

Jess Munday believes there are multiple reasons for the change in terminology. “The rise of the employee experience, the demand for more hospitable and engaging work environments, and the growing realisation of the importance of employee well-being for business performance are a few of the most significant. The pandemic has sped up this shift by emphasising the value of empathy, flexibility, and prioritising people.”

One other reason for this shift is the mix of new generations entering the workforce expecting a more human approach and a newfound work-life balance focus for employees post pandemic, adds Katy Edwards. “Millennials and Generation Z want to feel proud of the companies they work for, and they will happily move elsewhere if they feel that their ethos and values do not align.”

Many employers also recognise that it’s crucial to value your people and invest in their development, if you want to ensure the business is a success.

“[People] want to feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment,” remarks Jennifer Healy. “Social media has opened up a world of possibilities and a sharing of experiences. People are much clearer on what they’re looking for and the expectation they have from their employer. There’s also been a change since the pandemic and company actions are more reflective of what’s happening in society. Now, everything we do in P&C – from talent attraction, recruitment, onboarding, pay and benefits, support, and talent development – is underpinned with a focus on DE&I, ensuring that we create inclusive cultures.”

It would seem, therefore, that it’s important for HR teams to use the terminology that is fit for purpose within HR, best reflects current thinking, and is inclusive.

“It’s so important that HR teams continually update and evolve their terminology,” says Katy Edwards. “Having outdated policy wording, or poorly written job descriptions, can make it much harder to strategically work towards better business growth. From a simple level, changing language is about engaging with new generations, and making it clear to older workers what language is or is not acceptable. It’s about ensuring that your business is changing with the times and reacting in real-time to societal changes.”

New changes in terminology can also have a hugely positive effect on the workforce, she adds. “For example, terms such as neurodiversity are relatively new, yet HR teams are going above and beyond to make sure that those terms are widely understood and accepted by employees.”

With so much change within the HR profession, it appears that how we say things is even more important right now, and probably in the future too.

“Language will be much more people centric and must be in line with the many different elements of people and culture in each individual organisation,” remarks Jennifer Healy. “I’m excited by the future and the way in which HR has evolved. The lid has been lifted and the possibilities are endless. We have an incredible opportunity to reinvent the way in which we invest in and develop our talent. We can create workplaces which are happy and healthy and which people look forward to being part of and turning up for every day. This all leads to business success and sustainable futures.”