Boiled oceans and strategic staircases: Corporate jargon that workers hate

Editor’s Note: ‘Happy Hour’ is an HR Dive column from Reporter Ginger Christ. Follow along as she dives into some of the offbeat news in the HR space.

I have never been asked to take part in an “idea shower.” And, until I wrote this column, I did not know what that meant. For the likewise (blissfully) uninformed, it means to have a brainstorming session. Sorry, I think I’d rather go get a snack from the idea fridge instead. 

Forty-three percent of U.S. workers say the use of business jargon can alienate those who don’t understand it, according to the results of a recent survey by VoiceNation, a virtual receptionist service. 

Of the 1,000 people polled, 61% identified “boil the ocean” as the most misunderstood phrase, followed by COP (56%) and “the strategic staircase” (42%).

Dear reader, I also didn’t know what any of these phrases meant. Thanks to some quick Googling, I’ve sleuthed out the answers. 

If a colleague urges you not to boil the ocean, they are idiomatically advising you not to overly complicate a project or make it unnecessarily difficult, like trying to bring the Atlantic to a simmer. 

COP, or close of play, is a sport-inspired way of saying end of day, if you consider work a game and not your livelihood and way of supporting your adorable and needy cats.

Companies build a strategic staircase as a way to break their strategy down into small, achievable steps that can be climbed on the way to the end goal. 

The VoiceNation survey highlights a danger of corporate speak: creating division. 

“Our survey revealed significant disparities in the understanding of business jargon among Americans,” Dan Marshall, group head of digital at Moneypenny, an answering service company, and VoiceNation, said in a statement. “Employers need to be mindful of the language they use, ensuring it is accessible to all employees. By fostering a culture of transparent communication and minimizing reliance on jargon, companies can create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and understood.” 

In journalism, clarity is key. I think the same can be said for any business setting (except for the legal world; you’re on your own, lawyer friends). Why not use plain language instead of potentially misunderstood jargon?  

Of those surveyed, 38% said business jargon overcomplicates communications, while 29% said they felt jargon was unnecessary in the workplace. (As an aside: 37% said corporate speak was just plain annoying. No comment.)

On a personal level, it’s always felt unnatural to me to be a different person in my professional life than I am in my life outside of work. Clearly, there are exceptions. I’m certainly not going to sip a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon during a staff meeting or vent to a source about the wild world of online dating. But I’m also not going to be inauthentic in how I speak or connect with people.

It can be a tricky line to walk, especially for those without my privilege of being a college-educated White woman. But the idealist in me sees the elimination of jargon as one way to erase some barriers in the corporate world and allow us all to be a bit more human in our communication. 

In the human resources space, we talk a lot about being able to bring our full selves to work. I may be wrong, but I doubt anyone’s inner truth is best explored by “making hay” or “360 thinking.” 

Let’s circle back offline before COP to move the needle on these action items.