This Week in Culture

It’s Time to Retire These Common Workplace Terms – Lessons In Change Management

The gap between various employee categories has shown to be an ongoing issue in workplaces across the board.  The distinctions between hourly and salaried workers, blue collar and white collar, knowledge workers and non-knowledge workers, front line and office, field and corporate, and even online versus offline have been etched into our organizational vocabulary. It’s obvious that, to foster a more compassionate and welcoming work environment, we need to reconsider the language we use to describe our colleagues and their roles.

During a board meeting of the Workforce Institute I had the privilege of being part of discussions at the forefront of workplace dynamics. The question of how to appropriately address the divide between different groups of employees emerged, and it became clear that opinions diverged.

Traditionally, the dichotomy of white collar versus blue collar has been a fundamental way to categorize employees. But this terminology suggests that the contributions of one group are intrinsically more valuable than those of the other, which can support a hierarchical mindset. Similarly, phrases like “knowledge worker” and “non-knowledge worker” are downright pejorative in today’s workforce.

One indication of the evolving language of work is the change in title from Chief HR Officer to Chief People Officer. Establishing a culture of empathy and understanding requires first acknowledging people as human beings, not just as resources. In the same way, we should stop using dehumanizing language that might unintentionally marginalize particular worker groups and instead adapt our language to reflect this change.

This is particularly important given the resentment brewing in the frontline workforce that they are not as valued. When COVID happened the divide grew between corporate and non-corporate workers. Corporate workers were mostly non-essential and were able to work from home in the safety of their quarantine. Many non-corporate workers, however, were essential workers and they continued business as usual amidst the panic of a pandemic. This highlighted the inequity in the workforce of the haves and the have-nots.

The language we use affects not only how things are said but also how we see the world and behave. Making distinctions between knowledge workers and non-knowledge workers can unintentionally establish an intellectual contribution hierarchy among staff members. Similar divisions between front line and office, field and corporate, and online and offline can reinforce a “us versus them” mentality and impede cooperation and unity.

There was disagreement on the best terminology to use during a recent research committee board meeting with the Workforce Institute board. While some advocated using neutral language that emphasizes the nature of the work rather than the employment arrangement, others preferred language that highlighted unity and collaboration. There was a lot of discussion, and not everyone who participated could agree on everything.

Engaging employees in the conversation is crucial as we address these linguistic challenges. Organizations can create a vocabulary that embodies the principles of inclusivity and respect for others by implementing open communication and feedback mechanisms. Rather than forcing a top-down decision on terminology, allow representatives from different departments within the organization to work together to make a collaborative choice.

In conclusion, the language we use to describe different groups of employees is not a trivial matter. It has the power to shape our perceptions, influence our behaviors, and ultimately impact the company culture. As we strive for a more inclusive and compassionate workplace, let’s challenge ourselves to move beyond outdated distinctions and embrace a lexicon that unifies rather than divides. What terms do you use?

Elsewhere In Culture 

Teamsters authorize February strike at Anheuser-Busch

The recent vote by Teamsters to authorize a potential strike at Anheuser-Busch underscores a critical aspect of company culture, the value of acknowledging and rewarding employee contributions. This situation demonstrates the importance of transparent and respectful negotiations between management and workers. When employees feel undervalued, it can lead to significant disruptions in operations and damage the company’s reputation. It’s crucial for companies to recognize that their success is deeply intertwined with the satisfaction and well-being of their workforce.

Anheuser-Busch’s situation is a reminder that even large, successful companies can face challenges in maintaining a positive company culture. The strike authorization indicates a growing trend in labor negotiations, reflecting a shift in power dynamics in the workplace. Companies need to proactively engage with their employees, understanding their needs and concerns. Building a culture of mutual respect and recognition is not just a moral imperative but a strategic necessity in today’s business world.

Activision Blizzard settles $54M workplace discrimination lawsuit with California

Activision Blizzard’s recent $54 million settlement with the State of California over workplace discrimination allegations serves as a stark reminder of the crucial role company culture plays in ensuring fairness and equity in the workplace. This case highlights how disparities in pay and promotion opportunities can create a toxic environment, undermining employee morale and productivity. The settlement emphasizes the importance of companies proactively addressing issues of inequality and fostering a culture that values diversity and fairness. It’s essential for organizations to not only comply with legal standards but also to strive towards creating an inclusive environment where all employees feel valued and respected.

The resolution of this lawsuit brings to light the ongoing challenges companies face in maintaining ethical and equitable practices. Activision Blizzard’s commitment to ensuring fair pay and promotion practices represents a step forward in rectifying past issues and setting a standard for the future. This situation underscores the need for continuous vigilance and commitment from leadership in fostering a company culture that upholds the principles of equality and respect. For companies to thrive, they must create environments where every employee, regardless of gender or background, has equal opportunities to succeed and contribute meaningfully.

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