Employee vs. Associate: What Should You Call Your People?

Kris Dunn Communication, employee experience, Employee Relations, Kris Dunn

Capitalist Note – had someone lecture me about the need to call people “associates” last week. I like that tag fine, but I told them the story outlined below. 

Short answer: It doesn’t matter, your actions are much more meaningful than the tag you use..

Short story.  I was a young up and comer in a Director-level position with a Fortune 500 back in the early 2000s – way more responsibility than my resume and age said I deserved.  I was at a national HR meeting – top 20 people in HR in the company, the corporate functional HR heads (comp, benefits, etc.) and all the field leaders.  I don’t remember how it came up, but I offered up a cut and dry opinion that we shouldn’t call our talent employees – we should be calling them “associates”…

And the Darth Vader of HR at the company (a great guy BTW) proceeded to absolutely assassinate me in front of the group with a 5 minute rant on why that was pure Bull#### (quote).

What he said, I later came to realize, was the truth.  If you’re going to be cute with what you call employees, you better deliver on whatever promise you think you’re making.  Additionally, you can just keep calling your people “employees” and do all the upstream stuff you think the other names indicate and you’ll end up in the same place.  Without risking looking like a moron.

He was right.  He gave me a Nancy Kerrigan whack at the knees.  He later tried to promote me into a higher position in the West that would have required big relo.  I said no based on my gut about the division head I would have been working for.  7 months later, Darth flew in and shut down the office I would have been leading from.
Nothing but lessons from that guy.  Trust your gut when it comes to career.  And it doesn’t make one ### worth of difference what you call the people who work for your company.  All that matters is how you treat them and what you’ve got planned for them.

Thanks Darth.