CAITY Weaver, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, answers readers’ questions.
Q: I work at an NGO, where we are passionate about our jobs. Our executives hired a new head of HR recently.
Her first act was to change the department’s name from “HR” to “Human Capital”. It would be okay if we were Goldman Sachs, but a mission-oriented NGO? Capital? How do I broach the topic with the CEO that this does not respect the staff? She was clearly on board when the change was implemented, but may be open to realising it is not being well received.
A: Unless the mission of your NGO relates to the historical preservation of corporate jargon, do not bother your CEO with this. Many people hear the phrase “human resources” and assume it refers to a collection of resources provided for the humans who work at a company. The company, by this reckoning, is a kind of Mother Earth who provides her children not with wind and petroleum but payroll information and a mechanism for reporting sexual harassment. That’s incorrect. Human resources, as defined in the dictionaries of our land and in the hearts of its C-suite executives, are that portion of a company’s exploitable resources that are human, as opposed to, say, financial. Human beings are the resources of “human resources”. “Human resources” doesn’t sound too different from “human capital.” Or does it?
What is human capital? No one knows. People who act like they know actually just want to hear themselves say “human capital”. The different meanings individuals and organisations ascribe to this term are so nebulous as to be basically incomprehensible. Protesting this meaningless corporate designation will not improve your life, and could earn you the reputation of someone who wastes time complaining about inconsequential details. If this manager goes on to create policies that are truly unacceptable, policies that, as you point out, would arrive with inherent CEO approval, you will be glad you didn’t waste your first objection on a quibble about naming.
There is one person with whom you might broach the subject: your new head of Human Capital. Say you’d like to learn more about what aspects of career development the reorganised department is intended to emphasise. This is, of course, a lie, but I guarantee that the person who introduced this change has sensational ideas about why it was necessary and will relish the opportunity to list them to a new audience. You can earn points by seeming to care.
Q: I started a new job a few months ago at a media company. It is horrible. The management runs on power trips, my boss’s expectations are vague at best and impossible at worst, and everyone hates their job. The whole place has a cursed and doomed energy, and I’m already applying to new jobs to get out. That said, it has benefits and good holiday days. An acquaintance recently asked me for advice for applying to my exact job. A co-worker got fired suddenly. I gave her some interview tips, but also told her to check out the damning Glassdoor reviews. She’s making her way through the interview process and is very qualified. What is my moral responsibility to tell her how bad it really is? Her options seem to be this job or unemployment, which is how I got here too.
A: If you don’t lie, you can’t get caught in a lie. Tell her whatever you want, as long as it is not a lie. I don’t think your moral responsibility toward “an acquaintance” is tremendous, but even if she were a close friend, it would not be your duty to talk her out of taking a legal, non-hazardous job, especially if it were her only option. Your mention of a media job with “good holiday days” for entry-level employees caught my eye.
I hope yours is one. I’m also aware of the common practice, particularly among start-ups, of offering so-called unlimited holidays.Perhaps for some the policy works as advertised. In my experience, its effect is that employees end up taking relatively little time off, for fear of looking greedy or undedicated. Whatever your company’s policy, make sure you do take paid time off, especially since it sounds like your job makes you miserable. I also think many of my acquaintances who work in media would describe their workplaces with similar language, but don’t let that dissuade you from leaving.
Q: When I was a teacher at a boarding school, we had an athletic director who liked to call students and faculty “tiger” or “handsome”. He always felt that if he could say something nice to someone, he would do it, as that may be the only nice thing that person heard that day. He passed away a few years ago. As a nice memory and in admiration for his kind agenda, I like to call people handsome also. A supervisor today, who I copied on an email in which I called someone handsome, wrote an email back. I was told to “refrain from calling people handsome”. I’m curious. What is wrong with the salutation? I’m clueless how this may be a bad thing.
A: It is a lovely notion to compliment when the opportunity presents itself. Flattery of physical traits, regardless of kindness-to-accuracy ratio, could be welcome; it could also leave a person feeling uncomfortably scrutinised.
In any instance when a teacher is addressing a student, at work and when you simply can’t know for sure, highlight a specific skill or accomplishment instead. Besides being unfailingly appropriate, this is more in keeping with your generous intent. A salutation should not even be eligible to count as the only nice thing a person hears all day. Praise for something someone did, even if it is as simple as “You did a great job with (X),” gives the recipient the impression he or she is appreciated, rather than merely observed.
This article was first published in The New York Times.