The Language of HR: Are Employees Transactions or Interactions?

by Michael Haberman on April 21, 2011 · 2 comments


The language we use affects how we think. At least that is the theory, as you can read in this article entitled Does Your Language Shape How You Think? There is a theory known as linguistic realtivity, also known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism. According to Wikipedia “The principle of linguistic relativity holds that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world, i.e. their world view.”

Now this is a more global theory about language and thought, but it got me thinking about the language we use in Human Resources. How do  you refer to the people that work for your company? How does management refer to them? Are they assests or are they people? Are they costs or do they add value? Are they a pain-in-the-ass or a pleasure to be around? Are they an employee number or do they have a name? Are they headcount, manpower, or labor? Are they transactions or interactions?

I tend to agree with Whorfianism. I think that the language you apply to something guides how you think about it. To me, if you think of your co-worker as an asset, a headcount, an employee number or a pain you will deal with them as a transaction. Something that must be done and checked off the list. However, if you see them as a person, someone with value beyond their labor, then when you deal with them it is an interaction.

Early in my HR career I was a sole practioner for a plant of about 125 employees spread over three shifts. I would come into work each day trying to get this report done, check on that accident, following up on that performance appraisal, handling union grievances, etc. I would get behind on my work because people kept coming to my office asking questions. I would think “I cannot get my work done because of these interruptions.” Then one day it dawned on me that those interruptions were my work. The reports and all were important but what was most important were the interactions I was having with people. From that day forward I got out from behind my desk and spent alot more time in the plant. I crossed over shifts. I went to the people and gave them a chance to ask me questions in their environment rather than coming to my office. I felt better about my job and they felt better about the company. It paid dividends too. Two years later they decertified their union. I am not taking all the credit for that, but I sure think it helped.

So think about your language of HR. Are you employees transactions or interactions?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Blair Sollenberger April 21, 2011 at 12:18 pm

At the risk of toppling this symantic house of cards, might I suggest that all interactions are transactions. I’m not sure we are capable of interacting without transacting. The separation is purely academic to my line of understanding of communication. Blair

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Michael Haberman April 21, 2011 at 12:28 pm

Blair, you are technically correct. The point I was trying to make is in the quality of the transaction/interaction. Is it better to hand someone a piece of paper that has come to your office, or is it better to have a conversation along the way? Do you like going through the drive thru at a fast food restaurant or sitting at the bar with a favorite bartender. My bigger message was my realization that interruptions were not getting in the way of my work they made up my work, because they came from employees who had a need that I could fill.

Thanks for the reply.

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