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

by | Jan 3, 2024

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?

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