Language Matters

While the adage “stick and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” might ring true to some people, I think we can all agree that the language choices we make can have immense impact. 

It isn’t very difficult to see how the language and names we use for people can be influential, but this is less obvious when looking at an organization. So how can organizational language be impactful? Let’s take a look at a few examples of language choices around the employee life cycle. 

Recruit and Hire

Recruiting and hiring are places where there can be a stark difference between two organizations that appear to be very similar. For many companies recruiting and hiring are endless processes, and as soon as five new people are added to the team, five more walk out the door and the process iterates. The companies that find themselves in this cycle might have several problems that cause a high turnover rate. 

A different way of looking at recruiting and hiring is to view these tasks as attracting and selecting. When comparing the words recruit and attract, the most obvious difference is how recruit describes significant action while attract is more passive. Wouldn’t you like to have a line of potential candidates attracted to your organization? Wouldn’t you like to spend your efforts selecting the candidate who is the best fit for the job? Working to change your perspective when you “recruit and hire” to mirror the people-first attitude of “attract and select” can go a long way in improving employee quality and retention.

Onboard and Orient

Continuing on this thought of taking on a people-first mindset, we can adjust how we think about and talk about onboarding and orientation. These are key steps in integrating employees into a new organization and a shift here can have an immense impact. That said, what would be the impact if organizations referred to these steps as inspiring and aligning? This change would shift the focus away from checklists of tasks to be crossed off, history to be recited, and terms to be memorized and would focus on integrating new people into the core values and heartbeat of the organization. Along with this intent to align, there would be opportunities to inspire new employees by demonstrating what has been done in the past and where their unique talents fit into the group. 


Moving to our final example, retain vs engage and empower. I find the difference here to be the most striking. The word retain evokes an image of a wall straining to hold back flood waters or a herding dog attempting to keep a flock of sheep contained inside a pen. Using the words retain or retention is a decidedly cold way to talk about a person and their employment. On the flip side, focusing on engaging and empowering can allow an organization to still achieve some of the same goals (keeping a full-capacity staff which fuels ideal productivity) while shifting the focus to positive, people-first language. Ultimately, a people-first theory is built on the idea that if an organization is taking the proper steps to ensure that their employees are able to succeed, the organization will also succeed. 

How do you think about and speak about your employees or co-workers? Are you action and goal focused or do you create space for the individual and think in people-first concepts? While it may seem like a small or insignificant change, this adjusted perspective can have an immense impact.

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About Amy Lafko

As a Physical Therapist, Amy spent years in school learning best practices for patient care and how to put the patient first. Like so many technically skilled clinicians, she advanced to a leadership role. Spending 20+ years in operational leadership, she had an epiphany: Putting the customer first isn’t the path to success or fulfillment. Rather, the most successful organizations and practices put their people first – and exceptional customer care, profitability, and effectiveness naturally followed.