Editing HR Jargon

Thank you for visiting my business writing blog.

Q:  How do you make the Sydney Harbour Bridge look small?

Arriving in the city a bit early this morning, I took a walk around Circular Quay, Sydney’s central wharf area for harbour ferries. There, blotting out the bridge and the sky, was the Queen Mary 2. Size does matter, after all. 

But in your business writing, clarity matters more than anything. Here’s a great quote:

‘Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed …  What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.’ — Richard Dawkins, “Postmodernism Disrobed”, Nature, 9 July 1998

The target of Dawkins’ ire was the opaque jargon and tortured syntax of literary and art scholars, but his point applies equally to many in the Human Resources trade. For some bizarre reason, these unfortunates think the best way to recruit talented workers is to assault them with gibberish. Here’s an example from Sydney, but you can see the same sort of guff in L.A. or London, Washington or Wellington. Read it carefully. Then ask yourself, ‘Would I really want to work for an outfit that publishes such dreck?’

PARAGRAPH #1 — ‘My client is a Sydney based company that assists large Public and Private Sector and Not-for-Profit organisations to achieve the results they want from their business initiatives. They successfully execute their strategies by engaging and inspiring their target audiences, whether employees, sales channel’s staff, customers, potential new employees, or any group of people with a common interest or need. They engage, motivate and inspire. This ensures great results are achieved by successfully executing change within their client’s organisation.’  (80 words)

This verbose screed will raise several questions in the mind of a literate reader:

1. Who are ‘They’ ? Are they the organisation advertising the job or the clients of the organisation advertising the job?

2. Aside from ‘Public and Private Sector and Not-for-Profit’ , what types of organisations could there be?

3. Would ‘any group of people with a common interest or need’ include the “Occupy Sydney” bunch camping outside Martin Place Station in the financial district?

4. Are the mysterious protagonists who ‘successfully execute … strategies’ in sentence #2 the same ones who are ‘successfully executing change…’ in sentence #4?

5. Since they successfully executed strategies in sentence #2 by ‘engaging and inspiring’, does sentence #3 really need to remind us that they ‘engage … and inspire’ ?

Aside from the klunky syntax and jarring redundancies, this para offends by leading with the writer and the advertiser (‘My client’) instead of the reader (You). Here’s an edit that puts the reader first and does the job in exactly one-fifth the word count:

Join this Sydney company that helps large organisations achieve change by inspiring and motivating those involved.  (16 words)


PARAGRAPH #2Due to the development of their sales capability they are seeking an experienced Corporate Sales Manager to manage sales to large Corporations. This will be achieved by analysing and understanding their Corporate client’s needs and identify the appropriate way to use the company’s solutions to achieve the desired outcome.  (49 words)

1. What else would a Corporate Sales Manager do but manage sales to corporations?

2. If they have only one corporate client, can they afford to hire someone?

3. How can a verb (‘identify’) be an object of a preposition (‘by’)?

4. If you know that the correct word is ‘identifying’, are you overqualified for the job?

I don’t know for certain what this writer intended to communicate, but I do know for certain what he or she should have written, and it’s this:

Due to strong growth, they need an experienced Corporate Sales Manager. If you can analyse and understand clients’ needs, then match them to the company’s offers, this is the job for you.  (32 words)


Read this one aloud to feel the full poetic force of HR jargon in all its musical glory:

PARAGRAPH #3 — ‘Reporting to the General Manager, your main responsibilities will be to create new sales by selling to large Corporations. You will have a high level of experience fronting programs that bring an organisation face-to-face with senior executives of Australia’s largest corporations, engaged with top tier senior executives to identify opportunities to increase the effectiveness and success of their strategic change and performance improvement initiatives and lead sales engagements to achieve outstanding results.’  (74 words)

1. If ‘responsibilities’ are plural, why is only one responsibility listed (‘to create’)?

2. If a singular ‘level’ brings ‘organisation’, wouldn’t it take plural levels to ‘bring’ it?

3. How many junior executives are normally found in the ‘top tier’ ?

Sentence #2 has 55 words. Here is its grammatical skeleton:

Subject          Verb                    Object

Main Clause                           you              will have             level

Subordinate Clause            that*           bring                      organisation

*‘That’ is a relative pronoun. It functions as both conjunction to the main clause and subject of the subordinate clause. As a pronoun, it stands in for a previously-stated noun, ‘level’. As a singular pronoun, it takes a singular verb, ‘brings’ instead of the plural verb, ‘bring’.

The other 48 words merely expand upon ‘level’ or ‘organisation’. The last phrases expand upon ‘Australia’s largest corporations’, whereas the writer intended them to expand upon the prospect’s ‘experience’. This, in turn, is buried in a phrase modifying the object of the verb, when it could have been the subject of the entire sentence, like this:

Your experience will include engaging with senior executives, identifying opportunities to increase the effectiveness and success of their strategic change and performance improvement initiatives and leading sales engagements to achieve outstanding results.

The new, improved grammatical skeleton looks like this:

Subject                     Verb                             Objects

experience              will include             engaging … identifying … leading

We’re down to a single clause of only 32 words — with no grammatical errors — but the sentence is still too long. And it’s still full of HR jargon.

So this:

‘… effectiveness and success of their strategic change and performance improvement initiatives…’ (11 words)

Boils down to this:

‘… effectiveness of their strategic change initiatives…’  (6 words)

We’ve lightened the jargon load a bit, but 27 words is still too long for one sentence.  So I’d separate the two topics — ‘engaging with top tier’ and ‘leading sales engagements’. Just put a full stop after ‘initiatives’ and start a new sentence. Now the paragraph looks like this:

Your experience will include engaging with senior executives and identifying opportunities to increase the effectiveness of their strategic change initiatives. You will also have led sales teams that achieved outstanding results.  (31 words)

In the original, the ‘sales engagements’ achieved results, not the salespeople. This sort of anthropomorphism is common in the parallel universe of HR World. It’s oddly ironic, since Human Resources staff are charged with hiring and training people to actually do things. Yet over and over in recruitment ads it is ‘the position’ or ‘ the role’ that is responsible for achievement, not the person occupying the position or the role.

I have even seen recruitment ads in which ‘the position attracts a generous salary package’. This is good news for the position — and its family, if it has one — but how much will the worker be paid?

My career as a boss predates the HR era, so maybe I just don’t understand. I admit to being confused by modern organisations that establish an entire department of highly-paid professionals to recruit and train staff, then contract their recruitment and training tasks to groups of other highly-paid professionals who do the same thing, but at higher cost.

All the while these same organisations are paying their putative executives ever-greater multiples of the average wage. I don’t get it. Then again, I come from an earlier time, when you were not given an executive salary unless you were willing and able to be utterly responsible for every aspect of the company’s relationship with those who reported to you.

When I finally became a boss, I was personally responsible for recruiting, hiring, training, salary-negotiating, annual-leave-scheduling and firing the people in my department. My accepting that responsibility, and my being able to meet it, were what made me worth the money to the company’s shareholders. So, yeah, I’d be suspicious of the whole Human Resources gig, even if their prose was a model of clarity.

But this brings us back to Dawkins. Because if the HR pedlars merely wrote this …

HELP WANTED — Corporate Sales Manager — High-level experience required. $180,000 base + bonus + super. Located Sydney.

… they couldn’t charge very much, could they?


About Copymentor

Australian and US copywriter, creative director and author
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