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Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

Does Your Corporate Language Support a Human Workplace?

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5-minute read

Being Human

When was the last time you heard the word “love” used in a meeting? How about the last time you heard a senior leader in your organization use the words, “lonely,” “afraid,” “unsure,” or “struggling”?

The thing about being human is that we take all of ourselves wherever we go – the whole big, messy human complexity that includes everything we are – from emotions, logic, and professionalism, to commitment, passion, and creativity, and so much more. We don’t switch off our emotions just because we go to work, just as we don’t switch off our logic when we’re at home with family.

We are neurologically hardwired to categorize people and events into binary absolutes (good/bad), but in truth, we can be both villain and hero, engaged and disengaged, confident and insecure, connected and lonely. These human complexities present a unique challenge to organizations, particularly HR professionals who have made a career out of mitigating risk and systematically eliminating the inherent vulnerabilities of managing a human workforce.

Although our corporate paradigms have made significant shifts towards becoming more human-centered, in most cases, corporate language hasn’t evolved much past the industrial revolution, and continues to dehumanize employee relations, quietly sabotaging our best efforts. If organizations are going to be successful in making this pivotal shift, it will require new language and new types of conversations that get to the heart of what it means to be human at work.

Why Words Matter

The words we choose to use in any corporate culture will teach employees what is truly valued, what really matters most, and what is and isn’t tolerated. If you haven’t noticed, all organizations develop a unique “corporate language” that rolls down from the top and is often unintentionally created. It’s important to realize that if you’re not purposefully teaching your employees language to talk about failure, do not expect high levels of resiliency. If you are not empowering language to talk about loneliness, do not expect inclusion. And if you are not engaging in robust conversations around anger, emotion, and shame, do not expect healthy conflict resolution.  

Research shows that people with high levels of emotional intelligence (EQ) have far better language skills than their low-EQ counterparts. It has also been shown that the number of words you know to describe different kinds of emotions is directly correlated to your level of EQ. This would indicate that our experiences are shaped equally by our circumstance and the language we have available to describe it. The same concept holds true in our organizations. The more language we teach employees to express their full human experience, the more aligned we become with embracing humanity in the workplace.

Keep it Human

Here are a couple of ideas on how you can start the transformation towards a more human-friendly corporate language.

1. Teaching new language: In my current organization, I facilitate a workshop to help employees better understand and communicate their emotional state at work. The workshop starts with a robust list of words that describe different feelings and emotions. We unpack each word and explore when they have felt that emotion in the past. What was that experience like? How did the emotion show up for you? How do you know when you’re feeling it? What does it look like when it shows up in the workplace? How have you seen this emotion show up in other people?

It’s amazing to see the light bulbs go off as participants discover new language to express these deeply personal experiences. Colleagues bond as they realize that they’re not alone. “I never knew you felt like that” and “I’ve experienced that, too” are common insights. The workshop ends with an opportunity to choose five emotions that are productive and support them in fully embodying their values at work. They are also invited to choose five emotions that impede the expression of their best selves and cause them to act outside of their values in the workplace. Employees leave with new tools, new language, and a community to support them in bringing their full human to work.

2. Internal communications: Internal communication is the personified voice of an organization and a company’s greatest opportunity to put their best “human” foot forward – and yet they can be dead boring and act as a black hole of compliance, sucking away any spark of humanity. I think internal communications should pass my “best friend forever” (BFF) test.

When I went to sleep-away camp as a child, I would exchange letters with my best friend. I remember the excitement and anticipation as I ran to the camp mailbox to retrieve my weekly updates. The tone was highly personal, positive, and inclusive. The intention was always to keep telling each other who we were, what was important now, and who we were becoming, to ensure that at the end of summer camp we didn’t find ourselves estranged. I think this is a wonderful metaphor for any corporate communication. It should never talk to, but with employees. The corporate “voice” should be first person, personal, and always have the intention to enrich the relationship. My biggest advice is to keep it casual. If you wouldn’t send it to your BFF at sleep-away camp – rewrite it. 

Humans Welcome

Do you find yourself in the grips of a corporate lexicon based in emotional armor, hierarchy, and fear, where you have to be careful what you say? Or does your corporate language support the expression of transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability? As author Susan Scott says, “What gets talked about, and how it gets talked about determines what will happen. Or won’t happen.”


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About the Author

Wesley is Senior Director, Organizational Development and Talent Management at Randstad Canada and has been an influential contributor to the design and execution of its world-class talent management strategy.

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