Why it's time to ban corporate speak for good

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
A study found 88% of people just pretend to understand office jargon while having no idea what it means. Photo: Getty

It’s 8am and you’ve just settled at your desk with a coffee, ready to check your emails and get on with your working day. You’ve got a huge number of messages to sift through, before you even start on the long list of projects and tasks you have to get done.

As you start to crack on, your boss calls a meeting. You file into an airless room, as they begin reading out a list of ideas for projects you’ve already planned and started. There may even be a powerpoint involved.

As people slump back in their chairs and doodle on notepads, your manager reels off different examples of vacuous management speak as the meeting drags on: Circling back, touching base and blue-sky thinking. 

Walk through any office and you’re likely to hear someone using corporate speak ⁠— and a lot of irritated-looking employees wishing they were somewhere else.

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A 2017 survey by American Express Open found that 64% of office workers say they use jargon words or phrases multiple times a week. Tellingly, the study also found that 88% of people just pretend to understand office jargon while having no idea what it means.

Often used by managers, this kind of jargon is easily laughed off as being pointless and lacking meaning.

According to the Plain English Campaign, many staff working for big corporate organisations find themselves using management speak as a way of hiding the fact they haven’t done their job properly. In some cases, people may use this kind of language to give their work more meaning, if they lack a sense of worth in their job. Or even worse, cover up that they have no idea how to do their job properly.

survey by Institute of Leadership & Management, revealed that management speak is used in almost two thirds (64%) of offices, with nearly a quarter (23%) considering it to be a pointless irritation.

“Thinking outside the box” (57%), “going forward” (55%), and “let's touch base” (39%) were identified as the worst offenders. Over time, we have come up with new types of corporate speak, including the indecipherable “negative feedback loops” or “look under the bonnet”.

Hearing corporate jargon at work is certainly annoying. But is it more detrimental to workplaces and businesses than we realise?

More than just an irritant, the use of unnecessarily complex language can lead to mistakes. Put simply, we are less likely to understand exactly what a boss expects us to do if the instructions are shrouded in ambiguous corporate speak.

According to the Plain English Campaign, plain English is “a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise.” When our manager asks us to do something, we’re far more likely to get it right if we’re told clearly.

Using jargon is also a waste of time for employees with a large workload. It’s a far better use of staff time to hold a brief meeting with clear points, rather than waffle on, talking in riddles simply to fill up corporate air time.

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Management speak can also be bad for business. Employees on the receiving end may feel alienated and disengaged, particularly if they know highly-paid managers are only using it to appear knowledgeable.

It can also be used to cover up important issues, too. In 2014 former Nokia boss Stephen Elop sent a 1,110-word email full of jargon to staff which contained just two lines near the end stating the company was making 12,500 job cuts. Instead of getting straight to the point, he used terminology like "appropriate financial envelope" ⁠— torturing employees who most likely realised their futures were in jeopardy.

“Don’t try to impress, try to inform, and avoid acronyms, abbreviations, glib neologisms and words that are irrelevant,” warns Lee Monks, spokesperson for the Plain English Campaign. “Jargon never impresses those trying to decipher it.”

While professionals sometimes need technical terms to get their job done, maybe it’s time to stop squaring the circle.