"A Chinese sage of the distant past was once asked by his disciples what he would do first if he were given power to set right the affairs of the country. He answered: "I certainly should see to it that language is used correctly." The disciples looked perplexed. "Surely," they said, "this is a trivial matter. Why should you deem it so important?" And the Master replied: "If the language is not used correctly, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will be corrupted; if morals and art are corrupted, justice will go astray; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion."1 The remit of HR is obviously limited to the company rather than a country but, within its confines, HR’s careless or crafty use, misuse or non-use of words can have as devastating consequences as the sage foretold.
There are three reasons why the frequency, effectiveness and transparency of HR’s communication style is second in organisational consequence only to the CEO’s:
- The only function usually authorised to issue regular, organisation-wide messages is HR. This can be used for emergency information and instructions (such as following the Covid outbreak) or important long-term matters relating to policies, benefits, change programmes and situational updates. These communications can reinforce and reify (or contradict and confuse) the understanding employees hold of the company’s purpose, values and culture.
- A well-run HR operation has numerous opportunities for individual and small group contact (verbal or written) with employees. 2 These are vital, not simply for the transaction at hand or for acquiring a real-time pulse and health-check of people's sentiment, but as a means of sharing with employees the nuances of the organisation’s stance and strategies that cannot be revealed in all-employee messages.
- HR is privy to and, if trusted, can be the recipient of confidences that do not even reach the CEO directly. This endows the function with great power to mend matters, contain conflicts and persuade prevaricators. Like any other power, this one too can be used to the detriment of the persons whose confidential information is in HR’s grasp. Such 'fair to face and foul behind the back' tactics of our less desirable brethren are well captured by Stephano in The Tempest: "His forward voice, now, is to speak well of his friend; his backward voice is to utter foul speeches and to detract." 3
The intent of this column is to identify and describe three dysfunctional ways in which HR speaks to employees. They are certainly not ubiquitous but they extract a disproportionate toll on HR’s reputation whenever they occur. I have sequenced them here in rising order of lethality to organisation health and employee commitment.
Seemingly the most anodyne way in which HR can mismanage communication is by not communicating much with employees at all. This LSSM (Least Said Soonest Mended) method was much in use when I started my career and I continued to be guilty of it (at least in all-employee messages) even as more garrulous HR communication became the order of the day.
In my defence I could say that the organisations that I worked for already had strong cultures which did not need bolstering through HR communication but that is a specious argument. Least said also leads to least impact. But absence of influence is the least of the problems with maundharmic messaging. organisational information space abhors a vacuum. Without a credible and frequent voice of the management explaining crises, elaborating purposes and encouraging effort, rumours have a field day. One of the characteristics of memetically successful rumours is to put a negative or cynical spin on events, policies and the behaviour of the leadership. Even worse, and not as rare as one might hope, are orchestrated rumours and artfully leaked information that rush into the sounds of silence when there are opposing factions vying for organisational or sub-unit supremacy.
Regular, relevant and realistic communication from HR is necessary to prevent internecine or idle rumours from flowing into the information space. The media HR can use are many and justify a study in themselves. For the present we shall summarise with:
No man is the lord of any thing,
Though in and of him there be much consisting,
Till he communicate his parts to others. 4
While the costs of non-communication by HR are high, they pale in comparison to the damage disingenuous communication can cause. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: 'Better to remain silent and have one’s credibility questioned than to speak and to remove all doubt!' If we were to run a poll of what employee-customers hate the most about HR, its proclivity for speaking from both sides of its face would win hands down. Employees know that most HR people have above average command over language, hence they suspect other causes when messages from HR are confusing or ambiguous. "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink." 5 A single word to describe this whole range of hypocritical communication styles is Doublespeak and HR is a master of it. "Doublespeak is a language which pretends to communicate but really does not. It is language which makes the bad seem good, something negative appears positive, something unpleasant appears attractive, or at least tolerable. It is language which avoids or shifts responsibility; language which is at variance with its real and its purported meaning; language which conceals or prevents thought." 6
Broadly, there are three ways in which language can be twisted into Doublespeak. These are:
- Jargon and Bureaucratese
- Inflated language
Of course, each of these has justifiable uses in, for instance and respectively, minimising pain during traumatic events, specifying a procedure precisely or creating dramatic impact in an advertisement. Here, however, we are examining their misuse.
Substituting euphemisms such as 'rightsizing' for 'downsizing', fools no one. Matters are not improved by using 'head count management' for collective terminations and 'unallocated' or 'selective separation' for individuals. Simple rule: if you need verbiage to guise what you’re doing, it is shady. Painting a gun pink won’t make the bullet less lethal. One of the reasons euphemistic Doublespeak is so prevalent is the demand for soporific positivity pills some managements choose to administer in place of operating to remove major employee pain points. 7 People rarely fall for these pink paint jobs and end up agreeing with Bassanio’s: "I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind." 8
At the cutting edge of each discipline, terminology is inevitably created that is not accessible to the lay person or even to less research-oriented members of that domain. HR is no exception to this rule. But once one has an implementable programme or process that has to be communicated to the leader or general employee, jargon can only get in the way. Its use then, in the most charitable interpretation, is to impress employees with HR’s veneer of learning and specialisation. More often, it is part of the Doublespeak used to communicate without communicating so that there is plausible deniability of sense or of substance later.
As Molly Young puts it: "… [I]t’s safer to use words that signify nothing and can be stretched to mean anything, just in case you’re caught and required to defend yourself." 9 Young goes on to point out that, in pursuit of concealment, jargon garbs itself in the operating economic metaphors of its day. Thus, in recent times we have "New Age-speak mingled recklessly with aviation metaphors (holding pattern, … discussing something at the 30,000-foot level), verbs and adjectives shoved into nounhood (ask, win, fail, refresh, regroup, creative, sync, touch base), nouns shoved into verbhood (whiteboard, bucket), and a heap of nonwords that, through force of repetition, became wordlike (complexify, co-execute, replatform, shareability, directionality)." Consequently, Young points out, "the ratio of ingenuity to bullshit" gets tipped too far in the wrong direction. Most functions use jargon and catch-phrase contaminated Doublespeak in their language but, when it clouds the communication of leadership or HR with the people at large, it is bound to destroy the credibility of the former in the eyes of the latter. Now it is Falstaff employees agree with, in saying to HR: "There's no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune, nor no more truth in thee than in a drawn fox …". 10
If there's anything people detest more than ambiguity, it is tall claims that turn out to have little basis in reality. Whether it is describing the glory and prospects of the firm, the not-since-Ram magnanimity of its leadership or the cleverer-than-Chanakya brilliance of the CHRO, few PR puff pieces can match the blatantly inflated and patently false claims of an HR flatter-fountain in full flow. After the constant outpouring of hyperbolic hypocrisy, there is little left in the glitter-chest when a truly remarkable achievement needs to be shared. But this is a minor problem compared to the disbelieving yawn response HR programmes into the employee psyche. They tear (or delete) most communications from HR, saying (with Troilus): "Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart." 11
Difficult as it may be to imagine, Singlespeak (a term I owe to Edward White, though I use it somewhat differently) can be far more fatal for all concerned than Doublespeak. The wishy-washy prevarication, the tech-term obfuscation and the adulatory ad-copy of Doublespeak may be misleading and frustrating but they do not carry the covert LOBHotomy (Listen Or Be Headless) threat of those dealing in uniform and simple Singlespeak messages. This is one of the key distinctions between the many HR leaders who make the vague tall claims of Doublespeak and the scarcely veiled menace of the (fortunately far fewer) messianic Singlespeaking CEOs and their CHRO mouthpieces. In fact, the first commandment of Singlespeakers is that people should not have divergent visions and viewpoints or mention any different leader-deities other than to ridicule them. The third and most onerous distinction is that, unlike the passive absorption Doublespeak expects, Single speak demands periodic public pronouncements of support for the credo and the topmost leadership. The more senior the individual, the more frequent and self-abnegatory the references need to be. I have known tittle-tattle CHROs who inform their CEOs about senior managers who are not sufficiently fervent (even in private) in the support they voice.
The organisational impact of the Leadership Team Incantation (LTI) chanted by a shamanic HR isn’t pretty. "The sole purpose of the LTI is to strip everyone of their individuality, to paralyse them as personalities, to make them into unthinking and docile cattle in a herd driven and hounded in a particular direction, to turn them into atoms in a huge rolling block of stone."12 Fooled you. LTI is not a corporate credo but 'Lingua Tertii Imperii', Latin for 'Language of the Third Reich' and part of the title of Victor Klemperer’s book on the simplistic yet deadly propaganda used by that brutal regime. Far be it from me to suggest that modern Indian firms have any similarity to the Third Reich – though one wonders why Indian airport bookstores (whose clientele includes a substantial proportion of business executives) prominently display and report continuing high sales of 'Mein Kampf'. That said, the uncompromising Singlespeak put out by some HR Heads would be the envy of Joseph Goebbels.
Apart from the obvious criterion of just one narrative being permitted for interpreting the past and actioning the future, here are some ways to judge how Singlespoken an organisation has become. In the first place, it is not essential that the leadership or HR consciously deceive or manipulate employees. 13 In fact, Singlespeak works best when the former delude themselves into believing the message. 14 Consciously or not, Singlespeak is parasitic to some emotionally cathected values treasured by the general population. Analysis of the appropriateness of the value or whether the directives will realize it is, however, forbidden. A lot of simple slogans abound. Once again, any questioning of them, or of the mission-craze they are intended to fan, is met with Cardiganish disdain. 15 If disdain doesn’t suffice, there is always the LOBHotomic response the future Richard III gave to Buckingham.
Buckingham: My lord, what shall we do, if we perceive
Lord Hastings will not yield to our complots?
Gloucester. Chop off his head… 16
HR practitioners who wish to communicate clearly and transparently could make no better start than to follow these rules compiled more than half a century ago:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. [VFB, have you read these rules yourself? Ed]
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. 17
These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude.
We can advance to a few more equally compelling caveats but a CHRO’s life is not so simple and straightforward. A drastic attempt to substitute Nospeak, Doublespeak and Singlespeak with Straightspeak might be met with a CEO rebuke, on the following lines:
How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little,
Lest you may mar your fortunes. 18
And therein lies the tragedy of King Lear and of Straight speaking HR.
- Erich Heller, A Symposium: Assessments of the Man and the Philosopher, in K T Fann, Ludwig Wittgensein: The Man and His Philosophy, Partridge Publishing Singapore, 2020.
- Visty Banaji, HR is a contact sport, People Matters, 7 April 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/hr-is-a-contact-sport-25244).
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene 3, The Cambridge Dover Wilson Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1971.
- William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act III, Scene 2, The Cambridge Dover Wilson Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1969.
- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, Penguin Classics, 2013.
- William Lutz (Editor), Beyond Nineteen Eighty-Four: Doublespeak in a Post-Orwellian Age, National Council of Teachers of English, 1989.
- Visty Banaji, The Perils of Pressured Positivity, People Matters, 18 November 2021, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/strategic-hr/the-perils-of-pressured-positivity-31655).
- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 2, The Cambridge Dover Wilson Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1969.
- Molly Young, Garbage Language Why do corporations speak the way they do?, Vulture, 20 February 202
- William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 1, Act III, Scene 3, The Cambridge Dover Wilson Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1968.
- William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act V, Scene 3, The Cambridge Dover Wilson Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1969.
- Victor Klemperer, Language of the Third Reich: LTI: Lingua Tertii Imperii, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
- Jason Stanley, How Propaganda Works, Princeton University Press; 2015.
- Visty Banaji, The Faustian Triad, People Matters, 27 July 2020, (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/life-at-work/the-faustian-triad-26460).
- Terry Brighton, Hell Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Henry Holt and Co., 2004.
- William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act III, Scene 1, The Cambridge Dover Wilson Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1968.
- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, Penguin Modern Classics, 2013.
- William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act I, Scene 1, The Cambridge Dover Wilson Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1968.