Any fule kno that: The T-word

All of us have had the sensation at some point of time or the other (usually happens in childhood) – of repeating a word aloud over and over till it is rendered utterly meaningless. Guil-ty, guiii-lty, guil-tyyy, guilty and so on you intone till your brain, really cross with you for boring it to death, starts angrily tapping backspace in your head to make the letters disappear into a black hole.

After a couple of decades in the industry, one would imagine I have a reasonable tolerance for the T-word, and yet it is precisely the opposite. The more I hear it, read it, pursue it, bold and italicise it – the less significant it becomes. Talent, ta-lent, tal-ent, Talent Acquisition, Talent Retention, Talent Development, Talent Management, Talent Almost Anything, Anyone, Anywhere.

Origin and Evolution: As we all know, the ‘war for talent’ phrase was coined by McKinsey in their eponymous paper published in 1997. The phrase caught on and has been the corporate’s world’s favourite obsession, fuelled by the heady growth of tech behemoths and unicorns, the last 20 years. The T-word had now become so ubiquitous in the English-speaking business world that we almost feel awkward and backward saying employee, workforce, staff, manpower, people or any other term that was commonly used before the consulting giant’s ingenuity left us with a singular, rather annoying chant.


An alternate reality: The Oxford English Dictionary has more than 170,000 words – vocabulary is NOT in short supply.  Then what if we were to step back for a minute and consider, (don’t get het up, we’re just thinking aloud here) possible alternatives that might lend some colour and variety to our language? What would be our choices?

1.Sapiens in an org: Talent. Employees, people, appointee, workforce, staff, good people, brilliant people, average performers, rockstars (ok, not that one perhaps), worker, staff member, men and women and so on.

The workforce would be composed predominantly of knowledge workers in a diverse array of work arrangements – some part-time, some cyclical, some employees, some contract-based – Peter Drucker

2. The act of hiring people into an org: Talent Acquisition, recruitment, recruitment and selection, hiring, staffing, appoint, sign on, enroll, or just ‘get the best people on board.’

The competition to hire the best will increase in the years ahead. Companies that give extra flexibility to their empoyees will have an edge in this area – Bill Gates.

3. The act of investing in people: Talent Development. Did you notice I didn’t strikethrough that one? Well, that is because in this one instance the phrase Talent Development actually makes a lot of sense and combines a set of integrated human resources processes designed to build high-performance companies. But very often, it is used synonymously with just Training and Development.

4. Managing employee turnover: Talent Retention. Again, no strikethrough. Same reason. This phrase aptly describes all programmes that are designed to engage and motivate people in the org to stay and work hard. However, despite noble intentions, vast numbers of young HR warriors use the phrase to indicate a spreadsheet with attrition numbers or worse, ‘quit’ data. Sigh

Survival: The trouble with HR buzzwords is that they often attempt to paint a rosier-than-thou image that comes up short when business is in troubled waters.  When we need to describe processes/actions that are not-so-positive or motivational, we are at a loss.

You haven’t heard of Talent Layoff, Talent Separation or Talent VRS/VSP – have you?

The real world, as we know, is often a mixed bag. There are highs and lows, generous budgets and deep cost cuts, frenetic hiring and brutal rightsizing, fancy off sites and relentless long hours. For example, a recent article (Sep, ’18) in the Economist Espresso on the ongoing restructuring at Goldman Sachs is titled Darwin or Lose. There was no mention of the T word in the write-up.

Further, consider this news item from last week –

Earlier this week, Verizon confirmed that it offered a voluntary severance package (VSP) to about 44,000 employees and that it will transfer over 2,500 IT staff – some rumors suggest the figure to be closer to 5,000 employees – to India-based Infosys …. –

… Verizon’s decision to trim 1/3 of its workforce before the start of the holiday season is both sad and shortsighted – something that will come back to haunt it. Forbes, October 5, 2018.

When the news is grim, it is no longer talent that we are talking about. Why doesn’t it say ‘…Verizon’s decision to trim 1/3 of its talent pool’? That brings me back to the point I was making.

Communication and language, buzzwords included, need to be wiser, more sensitive, inclusive and responsible. The T-word suite can often be restrictive, misleading and even unkind. Perhaps, it is time to make a change.

Saying it as it is or being honest and transparent in everyday interaction is not as career-limiting a move as it is made out to be. And to do that right, one needs to have a knowledge of language beyond pithy catch-phrases

Choose your battles: (Being the Devil’s Advocate here – a critical HR skill)

On the other hand, you might argue, why go to all that trouble when you have a famous phrase that communicates fine? LOL is so much better than I laughed out loud. Is there any pressing need to fix what ain’t broken? No siree! We are all TALENT, and there is a war on for us. No time for a language lesson in the midst of all the action.

Oh well, good luck then.

But before I sign off –  the flood of messages in my Inbox from mid-career people looking for jobs tells me that the Talent spiel is not quite working for them at the moment. What should we call this bunch? Let me know if you have some thoughts on this one.


The title is derived from the Nigel Molesworth books by George Willans and Ronald Searle. Rock band Deep Purple have a song with the same name too, inspired by the fictional schoolboy’s original and irreverent manner of expression and spelling.

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