The worst workplace jargon


Arianna Huffington said she wants to ban "killing it." What workplace language would you ban? (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Sheryl Sandberg wants to ban bossy. Now, Arianna Huffington says she wants to ban "killing it."

Huffington, whose new book Thrive was officially released Tuesday, said in an interview posted on her Web site, the Huffington Post, that the phrase "Jeff in sales is really killing it," used as a compliment, is the one she'd most like to see banned from Corporate America. "This language of war that is introduced into everyday Corporate America is just totally detrimental," Huffington said. "Maybe we should change it to 'hey, she's nurturing it,' as opposed to 'killing it.'"

Sorry, Arianna, but I doubt that's going to happen. Still, I'm with her that there's far too much war-driven language in the workplace. Many of these expressions are so ingrained we don't realize we're using them. Managers must learn to rally the troops. We fire shots across the bow and perform surgical strikes on our competitors. We pick our battles, go after targets, marshall our resources and try to avoid collateral damage.  

The ubiquity of sports metaphors is even worse. We've all had to get a game plan together and follow the playbook. To many CEOs, we're players, not employees or workers. We have to swing for the fences, move the ball forward, do basic blocking and tackling, and throw Hail Mary passes in the fourth quarter to try to make the numbers. (I'm exhausted just writing that.)

It would be great to get rid of all those military and sports references — not even because they create a machismo workplace, but because people simply stop listening to managers who use such awful cliches.

The worst offenders in workplace jargon, and the ones I'd most like to ban, are words or phrases that are so amorphous and so meaningless that they can be inserted anywhere and mean anything. Or, of course, nothing at all.

Take "deliverable." What does this really mean? What's wrong with "assignment," "project," "report" or even plain old "deadline"? I guess "next steps" and "follow-ups" (as a noun, of course) got too cliched, so we needed a fancier word.

Then there's "value-add." (See also: to add value, value proposition, value-added.) These pointless and meaningless variations are what business executives say when what they really mean "a good thing that should make money" or even "what this offers that nothing else does." Those may be clunky phrases, or refer too explicitly to making money, but we could at the very least use simple words like "benefit" or "feature," or use the description "valuable."

Finally, there's "leverage." (Shudder.) Used almost exclusively in business as a verb rather than a noun, it can mean to apply, manipulate, influence, invest in, introduce or, quite simply, use. One linguist noted that "leverage" in business communication is "mostly used by subordinates in reports to superiors," and "rarely used by superiors in communication with subordinates."

In other words, it's typically trotted out by people looking to impress. Which is the same reason, of course, most other jargon gets used.

What word would you ban from Corporate America if you could? Let's get a list going in the comments section. Or use the hashtag #banjargon if you're sharing your pet peeves on Twitter. We'll compile all your deliverables into an 'off-limits' jargon list you can leverage at work.

Read also:

Sick of workplace jargon? Tell your boss about this study

Depression in the workplace

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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Jena McGregor · March 26, 2014

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