As a career-long business communicator, I’ve been challenged to refer to human beings in many ways. Whether driven by industry standards, corporate culture, or the druthers of a senior executive, most of us have adopted some peculiar labels for the people in and around our business.
In some workplaces, the word employee is taboo. Instead, those on the payroll become colleagues or team members or associates (maybe even with a capital A). Those who buy what an organization has to offer might be customers, consumers, clients, shoppers, or guests. Those who back a cause or company may be investors, donors, contributors, shareholders, or stakeholders.
Why the wide variety in these people-words? If I’m being optimistic (my default position), I can defend the good intentions of those who choose these terms. A client recently explained to me why she refers to the members of her team as people, not employees:
“We need more humanity in the workplace. We don’t stop being people when we go to work. But that can be how it feels when we have to fit into defined roles. I want to encourage the enthusiasm, energy, and intensity that comes with being human. I want to encourage someone to show up fully. Who we are matters, what we carry through the doors with us matters, and the work we do matters. When we combine all of this, what we have are people, not just employees.”
While this leader is emphasizing humanness, some communicators do the opposite—maybe on purpose, maybe not. Often, the most dehumanizing words are the ones that seep out of internal conversations. In-house, you may refer to me and my family as users or insureds or laypeople. But in my house, those names won’t make us come when you call.
Below is a fairly complete inventory of the people-words Jill and I have been asked to use over some 30 years of communicating for companies, clients, and causes. Scan the cluster of words and see what stands out to you. (Don’t miss the fine print. There are some real gems in there.)
What catches your eye?
First, I bet a lot of these people-words feel familiar and reasonably comfortable. Many of them are usefully descriptive. In the right context, I do identify as a voter, a reader, a donor. And I’d have no qualms introducing you to my advisor, my teacher, my teen.
But I’m guessing you also raise an eyebrow over at least a few of these words. Here are some that stoke my cynicism:
- Any title that ends in -ee sounds made up, even if it holds a legitimate spot in the dictionary. Coachee? Transferee? Mentee? (That’s far too close to manatee.)
- Though I may consider myself qualified, I don’t particularly want to be referred to as your talent, your champion, or your SME. I have a hunch you choose these words to make yourself feel better about what you’re asking me to do.
- I love a brand that inspires pride in its people. But contriving a term like Motorolans (yes, it’s in there, right above customers) … well, that just makes my eyes roll.
How should you refer to the human beings who matter to your business? Clearly, you have a lot of options. And in a world that expects targeted, personalized communication, one people-word does not fit all. So, choose wisely:
- Pick a word that conveys your best intentions.
- Pick a word that others will understand without question or explanation.
- Pick a word that feels positive, comfortable, or at least accurate to those you’re naming.
- Pick a word that you’d be comfortable using for yourself or someone you care about.
Above all, remember that as extraordinary as each of us likes to be, we all have one thing in common. Every single one of us who will receive, process, and (with any luck at all) act on your message is not just one-of-a-kind—we’re also of one kind: we’re human.