Redefining the Language of HR

Ron Jones

The language used by many HR managers and practitioners creates a problem for how the function of HR is perceived within organizations. The future credibility of the HR function is dependent upon its capacity to influence the behavior of managers and their impact on staff.
One area of particular concern is that of Performance Management, which is typically seen as a key function within the HR system of an organization.

The term Performance Management is intended to refer to a series of activities that measure and rate the effective and efficient attainment of goals. As such it is a broad descriptor of an internal process which should also cover elements of development and support. Performance management is often narrowly viewed as the process of appraisal and improvement rather than as a broad descriptor of a process that should include and focus on development and support.

It may well be that HR has become captive to using the term "performance management" as a tool of management to control, discipline, regulate and eventually terminate employees for inadequacies in individual performance. Too often a reference to performance management is viewed by the employee as appraisal: performance management discussions become one-way conversations about areas of improvement, rather than as two-way discussions which also highlight development needs.

We need to acknowledge that HR serves two primary groups within an organization and, by default, a secondary group outside the organization. The two primary groups are managers/leaders and those they manage/lead. The secondary audience are the regulatory bodies that determine penalties for breaches of employment contracts. If we are not clear about what we mean by terms such as Performance Management, then we will inevitably confuse the two primary receivers of our role and potentially be exposed to sanctions by external third parties.

HR needs to fundamentally change the way in which performance is nurtured, developed and improved and the starting point must be the language used. We need to relocate performance within a life-cycle of talent development where the focus is on matching individual capability and competency to organizational growth and objectives. HR has become much better at building recruitment action around future requirements and needs to follow this through with appropriate organizational interventions to ensure staff capability and development is continuously aligned to organizational change.

Much of the call for improved performance of individuals is based on the individual now being the wrong person for the job and fails to acknowledge that at some point the employee was the right person for the job. The question then has to be "What changed – has the organization’s needs changed, has the job itself changed or has some other event caused the employee to change?" Until HR is able to intervene to ensure this question is properly addressed, the management of performance will fail to find an appropriate solution.

This requires organizations to reassess the terminology which is used and it is a fundamental requirement of HR managers that they take an active part in this process.