Business Jargon Reality for HR: A “Seat at the Table” Doesn’t Equal a “Voice at the Table”

Josh Letourneau Engagement and Satisfaction, Joshua Letourneau

I admit the strangeness of the following question, but just at what point did “talking the talk” sour the HR Community?  It boggles my mind when I so often hear many HR Pros say they have a stark disdain for “business jargon”.  Yep, “business jargon” meaning . . . :

  • Elements of the Managers’ Discussion & Analysis section of an Annual Report, Chair
  • Concepts you learn in a traditional MBA program,
  • References alluded to when reading the Economist or Wall Street Journal,
  • The ‘Schtuff’ that business people often talk about, etc.

Phrases like “market segmentation”, “strategic analysis”, “net present value”, and “competitive advantage” are blown off as concepts that don’t mean anything.  That’s right — After all, if someone doesn’t understand what the concepts mean in the first place, it’s a lot easier to place the speaker or presenter in the mind’s “self-inflated business jargonist” category.

Yet, while this business jargon disdain persists, I hear the old “seat at the table” mantra continuously tossed around the HR community like a hot potato.  So, on one hand, this very contradiction is an irony in and of itself . . . but here’s a bigger one: Most “C-Suite Executives” (sorry, some more business jargon there) don’t think HR’s seat is actually earned.  Rather, they feel they conceded and put a folding chair in the room so HR would finally shut up about it.  “Want a seat?  Ok,ok – Here’s your seat already.”  The result?  HR Professionals who now often sit in a chair motionless, speechless, and quieted because they don’t understand what is being discussed when they finally sit down in the room.  Perhaps it’s a moment of serendipity because the very individuals who were positioned as ‘Business Jargonists’ now look at the HR Pro at the table as a ‘Business Neanderthal’.  Hey, I don’t like it any more than you do . . . but without acknowledging the reality of the situation, we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

However, just don’t take it from me — Jack Welch was much more eloquent as he shot straight with the SHRM audience in New Orleans a few weeks ago with the now-infamous line, “HR needs to get out of the picnic, birthday card, and insurance form business.”  And sure, I’ll concede the currently opined argument that “Jack was never in HR” (no, he was only one of the most successful CEOs’ of our time), so for the sake of conversation, let’s look at another scenario from someone who actually is HR-dedicated . . .

At the Aberdeen Human Capital Conference in March this year, I recall Kathy Betts (Vice President of HR at Novell) leading an insightful presentation, “Building the Successful HR Leader: Equal Parts HR and Business.”  During her talk, she detailed her creation of a mandatory program for HR at Novell titled, “Business Acumen”, and how learning the language and concepts of business have led to HR being better engaged and respected among the rest of the organization.  She also recommended HR Pros consider working their way toward an MBA.  To Kathy, just having a seat wasn’t enough – simply making it to the room was never the endgame.  Translation: Kathy’s team had a “seat at the table”, but they just weren’t sitting there.  They were involved and better respected, which led to a true voice at the table.  Yep, they moved from purely having a presence to exerting true influence.

So, my advice today is this: Learn how to “talk the talk” before you focus on “walking the walk”.  Oh, and by the way (should you happen to be keeping score), “seat at the table”, and “walking the walk” are actually allusions . . . and not actual “business jargon” per se.  Nope, business jargon actually has specific meaning that is not implied or debatable (see the first paragraph), and therefore, doesn’t rely on inference or some members of the audience “getting” the true meaning.