What HR Jargon Do You Need to Know?

Here's the Jargon You Need to Understand to Do Your Job

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When I graduated with a Master's Degree in Political Science, there weren't many jobs available for someone who was trained in judicial politics. Okay, there were no jobs in judicial politics in the town where I lived.

So, I decided I needed to do something different than policy analysis, but what? I loved teaching and knew that many Human Resources departments did training, so I decided I would work in HR.

However, I had zero experience and very little knowledge, so where could I begin?

I called several temp agencies and said, “I will do anything in an HR department.” I can type very fast and had good references, so they rapidly placed me as an administrative assistant in the HR department of a mid-sized company.

It was like moving into a new world. I had to ask a million questions, but fortunately, when I did, my boss patiently answered them.

Specific HR Jargon You Need to Know

Every profession has its own language or jargon. Here are some of the words you might hear coming out of an HR manager's mouth and what they really mean when they use them.

A Seat at the Table

Imagine a group of decision makers sitting around the table making a decision. Anyone who is there has a “seat.” It's just a description of who is invited to the meeting. HR often talks about having a “seat at the table” to emphasize that someone needs to be there to ensure the people perspective is taken into consideration.

Additionally, the term refers to a seat with the executive leadership in the executive conference room. This is where HR wants inclusion and input to decisions made that affect the strategic direction of the company and the successful deployment of the people to attain the goals.

Balanced Scorecard

This term comes out of Harvard Business School, and as such, can be explained in either a very complicated manner or in this way: everything matters.

You can't just ignore your people and focus on the numbers.

The scorecard looks specifically at four different areas: Learning and Growth, Business Process, Customers, and Finances. Often, the HR Business Partner is heavily involved in the learning and growth portions of determining this scorecard for each senior person.

Competencies or Core Competencies

These are generally the skills needed to do a particular job, but the reference is often a little fuzzier. Skills imply something concrete like - must know how to do financial modeling - while competencies can also include soft skills such as problem-solving abilities.

When HR managers talk about Core Competencies, they refer to the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are absolutely critical to the job. So, while it's nice to have an accountant with good interpersonal skills, all accountants must be able to work with numbers.

Corporate Culture

Every company has its own culture. Cultures can develop naturally without any effort, but often the HR department will attempt to build a specific culture. You'll see mission statements and team building activities and a number of other activities designed to create a specific culture within the organization.

Good HR departments make weeding out bad managers (or training bad managers to become good managers) a priority in creating a good corporate culture. Bad HR departments focus on mission statements and then wonder why the culture is still toxic.

Downsizing, Reorganization, Restructuring, or Rightsizing

As a general rule, these all mean that a company is going to lay off a number of employees. It's possible to reorganize and restructure and keep all of the employees, but in reality, if you hear discussions about company-wide reorganizations, freshen up your resume, because you might need it.

Family Friendly

Businesses often claim that they are family friendly when they have policies that are meant to support working parents. Benefits such as flexible schedules, on-site day care, and generous sick leaves to care for yourself and your sick children are often cited as important aspects of a family friendly business.

HR departments are usually the ones who develop and implement such policies.

Gross Misconduct

If you do something that is so bad that the consequence is that the company immediately fires you, your actions were gross misconduct. For instance, if you set fire to the boss's office, it doesn't matter that you had a perfect performance appraisal the week before, the boss will fire you.

Gross misconduct is generally determined by company policy rather than by law. But, just because the employee handbook doesn't say, no arson allowed, doesn't mean that the company won’t fire you - and have you arrested – for that action.

Let Go

One of many euphemisms for being fired. Now, of course, there are two main types of “fired.” The first is when an employee is terminated for business reasons unrelated to performance. This is generally known as a “layoff.”

The second is a true firing - when the employee has done something wrong. That something wrong includes poor performance as well as something terrible like stealing.


When you're hired, you have a bunch of paperwork to fill out. This is the very basic step that is done for all new employees and in some cases, this is the entire “onboarding” program.

Some companies have elaborate programs that involve cultural integration and building a general company knowledge base. The goal of all onboarding programs is to bring new employees into the company and get them working effectively.

Talent Management

Talent=people, management=management. When HR people talk about talent management, they are really just talking about making sure that they recruit, train, manage, develop and retain the best people.

Sometimes talent management programs don't include everyone in the organization, but only high potential employees and current leaders. Both management and HR departments are involved in a talent management system.

80/20 Rule

This terminology is used for lots of different situations, but in HR, it typically means that 80% of the problems are caused by 20% of the employees. HR departments may also speak of “frequent fliers.” These are employees who seem to have problems with everything and everybody and take up a great deal of HR time.

These words are certainly not a complete list of HR jargon, terms that non-HR people need to understand. But, hopefully, they will help you understand a bit more of what is being said – when HR speaks.