HR Terms and Jargon You Need to Know

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Every profession has its own language or jargon, and Human Resources is no exception. Here are some of the HR terms you might hear coming out of an HR manager's mouth and what it all really means. To communicate effectively with HR, whether or not you're in the department, it's important to understand and speak the lingo.

A Seat at the HR Table

Imagine a group of decision-makers sitting around a conference table making a decision. Anyone who is there at the table has a “seat," meaning they were invited to the meeting. HR managers often talk about having a “seat at the table” to emphasize that someone from HR needs to be at a company meeting to make sure the department's perspective is taken into consideration when decisions are made.

Additionally, the term refers to a seat with the executive leadership in the executive conference room. This is where HR really wants inclusion, making sure its input is heard when decisions are made that affect the company's strategic direction, particularly when deploying people is involved. HR wants that seat to participate as one of the company's strategic decision-makers.

Balanced Scorecard

The term balanced scorecard comes out of Harvard Business School, and as such, can be explained in either a very complicated manner or in this way: everything matters. You can't just ignore your people and focus on the numbers. You cannot expect people to produce quality products if they are judged by the number of parts they produce. 

The scorecard looks specifically at four different areas: Learning and Growth, Business Process, Customers, and Finances. Often, the HR business partner is heavily involved in the learning and growth portions of determining this scorecard for each senior person. In some organizations, the administrative and customer-focused jobs in the organization also report to HR.

Competencies or Core Competencies

These are generally the skills needed to do a particular job, but the reference is often a little fuzzier. Skills imply something concrete, such as, "must know how to do financial modeling," while competencies can also include soft skills, such as problem-solving abilities.

When HR managers talk about core competencies, they are referring to the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are absolutely critical to the job. So, while it's nice to have an accountant with good interpersonal skills, all accountants must first have the ability to work with numbers.

Corporate Culture

Every company has its own culture. Cultures can develop naturally without any effort, but often the HR department will attempt to build a specific culture. You'll see mission statements and team-building activities and a number of other activities that are designed to create a specific culture within the organization.

Good HR departments make weeding out bad managers (or training bad managers to become good managers) a priority when creating a good corporate culture. Bad HR departments focus on mission statements and then wonder why the culture is still toxic.

Downsizing, Reorganization, Restructuring, or Rightsizing

As a general rule, these terms all mean that a company is going to lay off a number of employees. It's possible to reorganize and restructure and keep all of the employees, but in reality, if you hear discussions about company-wide reorganizations or downsizing, freshen up your resume, because you might need it.


Businesses often claim that they are family-friendly when they have policies that are meant to support working parents. Benefits such as flexible schedules, on-site daycare, and generous sick leaves to care for yourself and your sick children are often cited as important aspects of a family-friendly business. HR departments are usually the ones who develop and implement such family-friendly policies.

Good HR departments recognize that what their employees want from their benefits is the most significant factor when determining what employee benefits to share. The benefits play a significant role in employee retention.

Gross Misconduct

If you do something that is so bad the only consequence is for the company to immediately fire you, your actions were "gross misconduct." For instance, if you set fire to the boss's office, it doesn't matter that you had a perfect performance appraisal the week before, the boss will fire you.

Gross misconduct is generally determined by company policy rather than by law. But just because the employee handbook doesn't say "no arson allowed" doesn't mean that the company won’t fire you — and have you arrested — for that action. Hitting another employee is another example of gross misconduct, as is stealing the company's products.

Let Go

"Let go" is one of many euphemisms employers and employees use to say that an employee was fired. Now, of course, there are two main types of “fired.” The first is when an employee is terminated for business reasons unrelated to performance. This is generally known as a “layoff.”

The second is a true firing — when the employee has done something wrong. That something wrong can include poor performance as well as something more terrible, such as stealing. Another common term for firing an employee is "employment termination" or "terminating the employment relationship."


When you're hired, you have a lot of paperwork to fill out. This is the very basic step that is done for all new employees and, in some cases, this is the entire “onboarding” program.

Some companies have elaborate onboarding programs that involve cultural integration and building a general company knowledge base. The goal of all onboarding programs is to bring new employees into the company and get them working effectively as quickly as possible. The ultimate goal is to build a positive relationship that enables you to retain the employee.

Talent Management

When HR people talk about talent management, they are really just talking about making sure they recruit, train, manage, develop and retain the best people.

Sometimes talent-management programs don't include everyone in the organization, but only the high-potential employees and current leaders. Both management and HR departments are involved in developing and implementing a talent-management system.

80/20 Rule

This terminology is used in many different situations, but in HR, it typically means that 80 percent of the problems are caused by 20 percent of the employees. HR departments may also speak of “frequent fliers.” These are employees who seem to have problems with everything and everybody and take up a great deal of HR time. They take up HR time disproportionately to better-performing employees—the employees that the HR staff would rather spend their time developing.