KPI, EOD, SMART, ROI, LIFO.
Some could read that sentence with no problem and know what each acronym means. Others might find it a mishmash of letters that have absolutely no meaning.
The corporate world is confusing as it is. Add in a bunch of unfamiliar work terms, that require a hasty Google search every time a coworker drops them into a sentence, and it can become an actual barrier for early professionals. Two-thirds (60%) of workers globally say they had to figure out workplace jargon on their own, according to LinkedIn and Duolingo’s The State of Workplace Jargon report. It causes stress, slows down productivity, and leaves some feeling excluded from conversations.
Workplace experts are going as far as to say that it’s an inclusion and belonging issue. Employers might not realize they are freezing people out by using this language. But now that more corporate workforces are remote, the stakes are even higher to foster a sense of belonging.
For example, workers can no longer turn to the person at the desk next to them to ask for a quick explanation of what a certain acronym means. Of course, a Google search can fill in the gaps to some extent. But there’s also corporate language that is specific to certain companies, implemented to create a sense of company branding and unity. If someone is new to a job, it might take some time for them to catch on.
“Companies try to create a sense of belonging, but it goes the other way,” said Natasha Bowman, founder of her own management consulting firm and published author. “When I first entered corporate America, in my first meeting they were using so much corporate jargon that I had no idea what they were talking about. I came out of that meeting completely clueless as to what I was supposed to learn or be doing.”
Jim Frawley, career coach, consultant and founder and CEO of Bellwether, an executive development firm, explains it well by suggesting that we really do look at corporate jargon as a different language.
“You would never switch over to Mandarin or Spanish when there are people at the conference table who don’t speak that language,” said Frawley. “It’s incredibly rude. That’s the impact that acronyms and corporate jargon can have, unintentionally. It alienates and disengages individuals who are new.”
It also costs a business. Grammarly’s 2023 State of Business Community report with The Harris Poll found that miscommunication costs U.S. businesses over $12,000 per employee per year.
“As we’re seeing higher and higher levels of turnover, and it’s more of now a bigger ramp up of individuals joining a firm, it does unintentionally slow things down, even though the intention of using acronyms is to make things go faster,” said Frawley.
Bowman suggests that companies identify themselves as “plain language organizations” upfront and encourages leaders to use plain language themselves to set an example.
“We really just need to be more upfront in our communication styles,” said Bowman. “When we do that, that’s when we are creating more inclusive cultures because we’re using language that is clear across different diverse backgrounds. We could just be talking in plain language.”
Frawley agrees that companies should take a step back to identify what acronyms and language are actually helpful, versus what is exclusionary.
“Everyone complains about it, but nobody really wants to fix it,” said Frawley. “It would be a valuable aspect of a leadership philosophy to have a specificity of communication as one of your pillars.”
That requires work from leaders to navigate what acronyms their employees understand, and teach them the ones that they don’t. “Any cultural transformation takes a long time,” said Bowman. “But if leaders use less and less jargon and more and more plain language, that’s going to trickle down the organization and give permission for others to do the same.”