Q: When I was a teacher at a boarding school, we had an athletic director who liked to call students and faculty “tiger” or “handsome.” He always felt that if he could say something nice to someone, he would do it, as that may be the only nice thing that person heard that day. He passed away a few years ago. As a nice memory and in admiration for his kind agenda, I like to call people handsome also.
A supervisor today — who I cc’ed on an email in which I called someone handsome — wrote an email back. I was told to “refrain from calling people handsome.” I’m curious. What is wrong with the salutation? I’m clueless how this may be a bad thing. — David
A: It’s a lovely notion to compliment when the opportunity presents itself. Flattery of physical traits (regardless of kindness-to-accuracy ratio) could be welcome; it could also leave a person feeling uncomfortably scrutinized.
Far better to highlight a specific skill or accomplishment instead. Besides being unfailingly appropriate, this is more in keeping with your generous intent. A salutation — generic by design — should not even be eligible to count as the only nice thing a person hears all day. Praise for something someone did, even if it’s as simple as “You did a great job with [X],” gives the recipient the impression he or she is appreciated, rather than merely observed.
Q: I work at a nonprofit where we are passionate about our jobs. Execs recently hired a new head of human resources. Her first act: Change the department’s name from “HR” to “Human Capital”! Cool if we were Goldman Sachs, but a mission-oriented nonprofit? Capital? How do I broach the topic with the CEO that this does not respect the staff? She was clearly on board when the change was implemented but may be open to realizing it is not being well received. — Anonymous
A: Unless the mission of your nonprofit relates to the historical preservation of corporate jargon, do not bother your CEO with this.
Many people hear the phrase “human resources” and assume it refers to a collection of resources provided for the humans who work at a company. The company, by this reckoning, is a kind of Mother Gaia who provides her children not with wind and petroleum but payroll information and a mechanism for reporting sexual harassment. Incorrect. Human resources, as defined in both the dictionaries of our land and in the hearts of its C-suite executives, are that portion of a company’s exploitable resources that are human, as opposed to, say, financial. Humans are the resources of “human resources.” We are the plankton slowly pressure-cooked over millions of years into black sludge capable of powering company vehicles.
Put that way, “human resources” doesn’t sound so different from “human capital.” Or does it? What is human capital?
No one knows. People who act like they know actually just want to hear themselves say “human capital.” I’m sure I’ll be hearing from some of them. It is an act of charity for me to give them an opportunity to use the phrase they love, and they are welcome. The different meanings individuals and organizations ascribe to this term are so nebulous as to be essentially incomprehensible. Economists roughly define it as every little thing about you that facilitates your making money. Modern HR departments increasingly use it as a prestigious euphemism for HR. See also: “People Operations,” “Talent and Inclusion.”
Protesting this meaningless corporate designation will not improve your life and could earn you the reputation of someone who wastes time complaining about inconsequential details. If this manager goes on to create policies that are truly unacceptable (policies that, as you point out, would arrive with inherent CEO approval), you will be glad you didn’t waste your first objection on a quibble about naming.
There is one person with whom you might broach the subject: your new head of Human Capital. Say you’d like to learn more about what aspects of career development the reorganized department is intended to emphasize. This is, of course, a lie, but I guarantee the person who instituted this change has sensational ideas about why it was necessary and will relish the opportunity to list them to a new audience. You can earn points by seeming to care.
Welcome aboard my sinking ship
Q: I started a new job a few months ago at a media company, and it’s horrible. The management runs on power trips, my boss’s expectations are vague at best and impossible at worst, and everyone hates their job. The whole place has a cursed and doomed energy, and I’m already applying to new jobs to get out. That said, it has benefits and good vacation days.
An acquaintance recently asked me for advice for applying to my exact job. (A co-worker got fired suddenly.) I gave her some interview tips but also told her to check out the (damning) Glassdoor reviews. She’s making her way through the interview process and is very qualified. What is my moral responsibility to tell her how bad it really is? Her options seem to be this job or unemployment, which is how I got here, too. — Anonymous
A: If you don’t lie, you can’t get caught in a lie. Tell her whatever you want, as long as it’s not a lie. I don’t think your moral responsibility toward “an acquaintance” is tremendous, but even if she were a close friend, it would not be your duty to talk her out of taking a legal, nonhazardous job — especially if it were her only option.
Your mention of a media job with “good vacation days” for entry-level employees caught my eye. I hope yours is one. I’m also aware of the common practice, particularly among startups, of offering so-called unlimited vacation. Perhaps for some the policy works as advertised; in my experience, its effect is that employees end up taking relatively little time off, for fear of looking greedy or undedicated. I can attest that I took more vacation in years when my time off was finite than when it was styled “unlimited.” (That’s not unusual; some companies with unlimited vacation set a recommended minimum of vacation days to counter this.) Whatever your company’s policy, make sure you do avail yourself of paid time off, especially since it sounds like your job makes you miserable.
I also think many of my acquaintances who work in media would describe their workplaces with similar language — but don’t let that dissuade you from leaving.
Work Friend is a cheeky New York Times advice column to help with careers, money and the sometimes grim, sometimes hilarious maze that is the contemporary office, from a rotating cast of advice-givers. Email questions to email@example.com.