GLOSSARY / I was a prime resource but I naturally wasted

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The Independent Online
EVER since the ill-fated day when a Mr Sydney Becket of the biscuit manufacturer Symes and Steadman decided to adopt the title Human Resources Manager in preference to Personnel Manager, intelligibility in this profession has taken a drubbing.

But as Haile Selassie, 'Lion of Lions, King of Kings and many other things', understood, titles are not only fun, they have real clout. If you are Corporate Human Resources Manager rather than Head of Personnel Management you are clearly stating your position. First, you oversee the entire corporation, not merely one of the companies in the group; second, you deal only with humans, no other animals and no extra-terrestial, non-human thing need apply. Third, and not least, you deal in resources. You know, as every reader of

every recruitment brochure knows, that 'people are our prime resource'.

Human Resources was one of a number of titles that swept on to the managerially effective stage in the Eighties, conferring greater professional status upon the entitled. Public relations directors became Directors of Corporate Communications, or Heads of Corporate Affairs, or Directors of Corporate Affairs and Communications. Places on the board filled up with more and more meaty capitals and titles.

Following suit, personnel managers felt in need of more height to their vertically constrained stature. This was quite appropriate because the profession seriously deserved some kind of image improvement. To the personally managed, the personnel manager had long been a cross between an accountant and a tax collector; he or she appeared only to count or dispense with heads and only contacted you as a bearer of bad news.

Even as the new-age personnel manager began to adopt and display an armoury of new, professional disciplines such as psychology, sociology, pyschotherapy, counselling management - or fitted out his workbench with graphology, pyschometrics and personality colour testing - he was still only a personnel manager in the eyes of most employees.

This all happened, we remember, during those halcyon days of economic excess when the canon of business jargon grew vast with new words and expressions. New coinage quickly found favour in the maelstrom of verbal fashions; old words and expressions were discarded or re-issued with added shine and meaning. The well known Catholic independent school must feel devalued by the coinage of the term 'downside', as in expressions such as: 'On the downside, you must work long hours and run a tight ship. This prestigious appointment is no nine-to-five sinecure . . .'

Whereas downside is quite popular, its shelfmate 'upside' is still waiting for an appointment. This is understandable. 'Downside' has a certain machismo, whoever uses it; 'upside' sounds a bit Andy Pandy.

The tribal inbreeding of language seems, if anything, to have stepped up a pace in the Nineties. A short distance from the desk of the human resources manager, today's recruitment copywriter seeks out his quarry to work in 'Derivatives Systems Development' by inviting him to take part in the creation of 'a global system utilising a distributed client-server architecture . . .'. One would have thought it a marvellous coincidence that such a person existed who happened to be looking for work and understood the job description.

There are endless examples of the sort. Would you 'fit strategically into a high-profile corporate culture'? Can you 'cost justify and deliver competitive- edge solutions'? Do you have 'personal FLAIR and CHARISMA', both of which 'are also key characteristics of this High Profile post'?

Perhaps we should not shudder at this phraseology but simply consider the fact that we are responsible for its existence. After all, we have swallowed most of this language whole; it is printed and spoken without remark. Maybe we should squeal just occasionally. How did we ever get to the state in which we no longer flinch at expressions such as 'natural wastage'? There must be a kinder and more grateful way of referring to people who are retiring early or leaving a job for other reasons. Natural wastage is probably as welcome a term to the naturally wasted, as 'ethnic cleansing' is to the ethnically cleansed. Let us murder, kill, rid ourselves of, but let us not ethnically cleanse.

Thomas Sutcliffe is away.