A rant on derogatory language in business

As I continue to help more startups in Austin, I want to go on a bit of a rant. In my opinion, there is simply too much derogatory language in business - and there is no place for it. Most leadership training comes from the roots of the military, where people can die if they don't follow orders. As I always told our incredible people at Bazaarvoice, especially during the very difficult Great Recession years, we are working under an air-conditioned roof, receiving free snacks, and seeing our families at night much of the time. If we take too many of our leadership cues from the military, we don't honor the unique culture of modern-day business.

I think the bigger the business, the less human it tends to become. If you are an executive of a big business, where you cannot possibly remember everyone's name as you walk around the halls, it is easy to think of business as a big machine instead of the very human, personal thing that it really is.

One person that can rail against this "machineness" is the CEO. If the CEO sets the tone, as I wrote about in my Lucky7 post on the 7 lessons learned from founder to CEO, then the rest of the executive team should follow.

I've noticed some of the startups I'm helping using the word "girl" a lot to describe young women in their business. This is, without a doubt, an innocent practice. I'm not trying to suggest that they are sexist or anything of the sort. But it is wrong nonetheless. And I've heard older women in these businesses say it too. Maybe it is collegiate, in a way, but when have you heard anyone in a business describe one of their young male workers (let's define a young man as a Millennial) as a "boy"? You don't hear it, do you? I don't think I've ever heard it myself. But I bet "boy" is used as a sometimes derogatory, or power-position term, in the military, or at least I bet it was.

As bad as the term "girl" is in business, I'm not sure it is as bad as the dehumanizing terms of body parts used by businesses to describe their people. Let's start with the age-old term "headcount" or "heads". What the hell is that? These are people - with all of their body parts in tact. Didn't you say people are the most important part of your business? Are you chopping off their heads? What about the terms "butts-in-seats" or "bodies" (sounds like a morgue)? Or "belly-buttons"?! You've probably heard more.

Again, I'm sure this is innocent and just bad habit - mostly learned from large companies. But there used to be a lot of bad habits that dehumanized African Americans, Jewish Americans, and many other people that were, at one time, seen as less than human by some. Let's kill this bad habit in business. Let's set the right tone from the top. If people are your most important asset, then treat your people the way you yourself would want to be treated. Do you want to be called a "head" or a "butt-in-seat" by anyone? You are a person and they are too.

For an example, should you choose to accept this mission, here is an email I wrote to all of our managers at Bazaarvoice in March of 2012 (one month after we went public):

Title: People vs. headcount - words matter


As our company gets bigger and more "successful", it is easy to forget how we got here. And it is especially easy to start thinking that we are turning nobs and dials of one big corporate machine. We have to fight this habit, and it starts with the way we treat and talk about our people.


We are a company of equals.

We value difference.

We are people first, roles second.

Why did we craft this value two years ago? Because it represented the best of how we had evolved up until that point. And RESPECT is as important now as it was back then. Actually, it is even more important now that we are public. Our PERFORMANCE matters more than ever and that starts with all of our great people stepping up to perform like never before.

From here on out, I want all of you as our leaders to refer to our great people as exactly that – people. We are not headcount; we are not resources; we are not heads, bodies, belly-buttons, butts in seats, or any other body part; we are people – working here under our own free will and determined to change the world, one authentic conversation at a time. If you must adhere to corporate speak because of your past programming, then feel free to use the word employees at times. But I would prefer people to be top of mind in your Bazaarvoice corporate vocabulary.

And don't ever forget – what retains great people most is respect of their peers (A players who also live our values), their boss (A players who set the leadership example and cultural tone – i.e., all of YOU), and the company's mission and performance.

Now that we are public, we must commit to our values like never before. I need your help in that recommitment and while language may seem too stylistic, it matters. There have been many words used throughout history to refer to people that no one viewed as "malicious" at the time because of the cultural norms of the day, but they really mattered and as we look back now with hindsight we are shocked they were ever used – perhaps you yourself have been the target of these words. The golden rule is to treat people, regardless of their differences, as you yourself would want to be treated.


Thanks, Brett

I would love to hear your thoughts below and whether or not you plan to accept this challenge. If you disagree with me, please let me know why.