This is a colleague announcement


[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

Today, I’m delighted to introduce a guest post by fellow copywriter Richard Owsley. In true goodcopybadcopy style, it’s a rant against a nefarious piece of corpspeak – happy reading!

Colleague. What does the word mean to you? Not ten years ago, but now.

To me the answer is easy. It means a supermarket shelf stacker, call centre worker or a downtrodden white collar junior at a large unwieldy organisation like a bank or phone company. Shame really, given what the word used to mean.

In fact I think it has probably become the most abusive term possible for addressing your staff. Because the deceit is so flipping see through. (Sorry, am I meant to say transparent?)

How would these workers refer to themselves, if asked? Staff, probably. Employees, maybe. Staff sounds fairly professional and employee sounds functional enough – we’re employed by an employer, we understand the relationship. Workers is fair enough as well, for that’s what we are.

But in the Human Resources world (which solar system is that in, I wonder?) these decent, acceptable descriptions are seen as disparaging. Not, I venture, as disparaging as most normal people find the expression human resources. But then the people who work in this field don’t really seem to listen to or understand the views of normal humans.

As copywriters, we have to fight against this nonsense. Please do not insult people with the word colleagues. We should make it our job to tell the HR fools where to get off. Sorry, are we allowed to say job, I can’t remember?

Richard Owsley has a business degree and postgraduate degree in marketing and has been working full-time as a copywriter and editor for over 15 years. He lives in Bristol and runs Writers, a copywriting company with offices in the UK, France and Australia.

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10 Responses to This is a colleague announcement

  1. Clare Lynch December 15, 2009 at 10:29 am #

    Thanks for these insights, Richard. Using the word “colleague” for employee does seem to be a rather obvious attempt to co-opt the fraternity that might in the past have been the preserve of, ooh, the unions perhaps? “Employees” and “staff” are dangerously autonomous creatures, whereas “colleagues” have sublimated themselves to the greater good that is the corporation.

    In answer to your final question, no, you’re not allowed to say “job” – as I’ve discussed previously, these days it’s a “role”.


    It’s all part of the same thing.

  2. Sharon O'Dea December 15, 2009 at 10:53 am #

    I don’t really like the word either, unfortunately, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. The emergence of colleagues as the name of choice for people who work for you is also a reflection of the increasing complexity of our workplaces, and in particular the huge growth of outsourcing in its many forms.

    So for instance, at my last workplace, I was neither employee nor staff, despite working in the building for two years alongside people who were. I was employed by a different organisation and was seconded as a consultant. The same is true of temps and those working for outsourced services – of which there are many, in the public and private sectors.

    In my experience, it’s the unions who insist on semantic destinctions being made between staff/employees and those not on the payroll.

    As I see it, the growing use of ‘colleague’ reflects an absence of alternatives that describe our increasingly individualised workforces.

  3. Frank December 15, 2009 at 11:08 am #

    hmmm. yes, well, some employers may use the word colleague in a paper-thin attempt at chumminess but you seem rather disproportionately annoyed about it.

    the “human resource fools” are people doing a job. sure, give them the benefit of your understanding of how we need to think about words and their meaning but save us (and them) the jeremy-clarkson-political-correctness-gone-mad rant. please.

  4. Rob December 15, 2009 at 11:06 am #

    This is a great post. Using colleague incorrectly irritates me so much. It is supposed to mean ‘someone I work with’. You can’t just use it everytime you want to say employees

  5. Steve Ellwood December 15, 2009 at 11:08 am #

    Well, since HR don’t know what to call themselves, why would we trust them?

    In my own company you’re either “manager” or “Professional” or “Team Member”. We do also get called colleagues and greatest asset though, so that’s all right then. 🙂

  6. Brad Shorr December 15, 2009 at 1:38 pm #

    I’ve been out of the corporate world a long time, I guess: I didn’t realize people were now referring to employees as colleagues. Why in the world would someone deem “employees” or “staff” demeaning? Corporate sensibilities have become too delicate.

  7. Tony Sharp December 16, 2009 at 3:01 pm #

    I’ve happily described people in organisations as employees and staff. However, a lot of people feel such descriptions are somehow demeaning. They prefer to be described as colleagues as they feel it reduces the distinction between management and staff. It’s akin to workplace class warfare. Where I work now the employees prefer to be called colleagues, so that’s the term I use.

  8. Richard Owsley December 18, 2009 at 10:54 am #

    Thanks all for your comments. Yes Tony I, too, refer to my colleagues as exactly that. It is a normal word, unless used in the way Rob describes, as an enforced, tactless substitution for words people use everyday to describe their work status. Mostly it works fine, but when it’s prescribed there are just far too many ludicrous uses that the HR people seem blind to. Public notices saying: “Private – colleagues only” or “In the event of fire please alert a member of our colleagues.” (Yes, really). It’s even more pitiful when you get things like: “We employ 2,000 colleagues” or “In our 2009 Staff Survey, 87% of colleagues said XXX was a good place to be a colleague.”

    Frank, I guess you haven’t worked with many HR people? I work with investor relations, corporate communications, sales and marketing, and people from many other functions, offering my view on how best to communicate. Always they do me the courtesy of listening, most of the time they act on my advice, but whether they do or not is their prerogative. Internal communications people do, too, but are often overruled by their HR bosses. I can’t recall a single instance where an HR person has been interested in my point of view about communicating with staff. So really the only communication channel left, after 30 years of trying, is the Clarkson style rant. It won’t change HR people but at least fellow writers will maybe give pause for thought?

  9. Paul Connelly January 18, 2010 at 2:29 pm #

    I have never found the word colleague offensive. As it is designed to describe someone we work with, i fail to see how it could be seen in this way. Even if we were all over-sensitive about the way that we are referred to by our workmates, the fact that it suggests togetherness, without reference to rank or role, is a good thing. It is also why we all use it. As I note that Mr Owsley has failed to come up with a better alternative, I am also struggling to define his contribution as useful.

  10. Richard Owsley January 20, 2010 at 4:15 pm #

    As you’ll see in my comments above, Paul, I use the word colleagues myself and don’t find it offensive. I am also fine with it, again as I mention above, when people use it to refer to their work colleagues. And as you’ll see in my original post, I offer a number of alternatives that firms could use to describe the people who work for them – staff, employees, workers, people even. So I’m really not quite sure what you’re on about.

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