Words matter because words have explicit and implicit meanings, both of which can convey a positive or negative message. Anything that diminishes the importance of words, and the way they are used, strips language of any real value and reduces words to ambiguous strings of letters.

For example, being careful with what we call people (titles, terms, monikers, nicknames, etc.) is an area of our nomenclature that is particularly critical in the staffing industry, which I like to call “the people services industry”. If we believe that people have intrinsic worth, contribute real value to society and the family structure and, of course, businesses and organizations, we should have a heightened awareness of what we call them and the possible implications.

We must also realize that, due to the ubiquitous nature of technology, it’s sometimes inherently dehumanizing to reduce people into numbers or codes. In fact, it’s probably better to heighten our humanization of people and workers to the point it may seem exaggerated, even if we move slightly too far in that direction. I’d rather err on the side of being too people-sensitive with my language than being indifferent to verbiage that can devalue, depersonalize or be condescend to individuals.

“Temp” is a name/title that, intentionally or not, can have negative connotations. For instance, referring to someone as “just a temp.”

My company refers to our candidates and assigned workers as Teammates, and there is a gag fine if you call them by the other, less flattering term. Yet a high percentage of RFP’s I receive from companies soliciting people services, industry colleagues, and even staffing industry organizations, still seem to use this antiquated designation. Why not use the term associate, extended/contingent worker or even non-employed contributor?

I also shudder (and chuckle) at other industry acronyms, numbers and terms for people in our workforce. A truncated list of some prime suspects:

  • FTE – Isn’t this an investment option similar to a mutual fund but trades more like an individual stock?
  • 1099 – This is a tax form, I do believe.
  • IC – A frosty drink from my youth.
  • Gig worker – According to Merriam-Webster, the term “gig” can mean “a person of odd or grotesque appearance.”
  • Contractor – Someone who builds houses or buildings or things, I think.
  • Blue-Collar – An indication that your shirt is too tight.
  • Manpower – According to most progressives, this could potentially be a sexist term. Peoplepower is more PC.
  • Day Laborer – A worker averse to laboring at night.
  • Casual worker – A worker opposed to business attire and most forms of PPE.
  • Permanent employee – One thing I can guarantee you is that no job lasts for eternity.
  • Exempt – From what? From paying taxes maybe?
  • White-Collar – Often associated with a priestly duties (see “sacerdotal”).
  • Telecommuter – Rides to work on a tele.
  • Headcount – Number of employees at your office, not including sculpted busts.
  • Headhunter – Recruiter who hunts your headcount…or sculpted busts.

I know all of this may sound silly, and I’m not promoting that we create an entirely new dialect in order to inject the human into the people services industry, but I would advocate for using our words carefully. My goal here is to create more awareness and some intentionality when we call people something. After all, a good question to get us in the right frame of mind might be, “What do I want to be called?”

Want to learn more? Please contact Linden Wolfe, PHR, CCWP at lwolfe@excelsiorstaffing.com or visit Excelsior MS3P – simple, scalable, smart