Language is important and so is employee retention. The link between the two, however, is not always acknowledged in the corporate world. Recent HR studies show that employee retention is a complex phenomenon, driven by much more than compensation and motivation. In this article, we explore the role of language in improving employee retention.
Why is employee retention important?
Employee retention has a direct impact on business results. According to Gallup, the cost of replacing an employee is as high as two times their salary. This includes recruitment and training costs, but there is also a loss of skills, contacts and experience that is harder to value in monetary terms. The realization that employee retention is important has come late to the business world, but it is now an undeniable fact.
Understanding the causes of employee turnover is important, but not simple. Employees choose to stay at a job — or to leave it — for reasons much more complex than traditionally assumed. A study has found that issues such as job satisfaction, compensation or a difficult boss are not enough to explain turnover. In fact, numerous surveys have found that, among the reasons to stay at a specific job, there is one that ranks particularly high: a sense of meaning and or purpose.
The bottom line: bringing meaning to a job is important. And what is the best way to convey meaning if not through language?
The role of language
Language can shape the way we think. Being deliberate about the words we use to define what our company can have a direct impact on the experience of employees at work. After all, a shared culture consists in having shared definitions of: who we are as a collective, what is important to us (our values), what we aim to achieve (our mission). We use words to create these definitions, and that is how describe the landscape we are all immersed in, as a team.
But the process of creating a common language is not always as smooth, coherent or efficient as we’d wish. Because we all come from different universes of meaning before we become a team. This is why there are numerous studies about the differing impact language can have on people at work.
If you lead a multicultural company such as ours, you already know that words can have a very different impact on people from different cultures, especially if they speak different languages. Keeping this in mind, as the leader of a multicultural company, can be the key to making your employees feel like they “belong” or they don’t.
A sense of belonging is an essential human need, along with the freedom to be able to develop a certain level of individual autonomy. Employees value an environment where they can identify as part of something larger, but they also need to be recognized as individuals with a particular contribution to make. In this regard, a leader who speaks to both dimensions — belonging and singularity — is more likely to have engaged team members. This is particularly important, as reported by Gallup, because engaged employees are more likely to stay at their job.
The importance of gender representation
A LinkedIn report states that words impact men and women differently, and although we could have predicted that, it is interesting because it is data-based. The social media analysts, in collaboration with a group of scholars, have found that 44% of women would be discouraged from a job description that includes the word “aggressive” while only a third of surveyed men felt the same way. One of the conclusions inferred from this data is that, when trying to appeal to both genders, speaking about personal traits is preferable to only listing a series of skills. Also, women tend to portray more of their character in their social media profiles and CVs, while men are more about the results.
When we think about this type of research and we consider that gender identity is not binary, we realize the possibilities of impacting our employees through language can never be overlooked. Think of the words we use in recruitment interviews, training material and staff meetings, for example. Using the right gender inclusive language can attract and retain more gender diverse teams, as the report summarises.
Jargon or no jargon, that is the question
As its main entry, ‘jargon’ is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the “technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group.” But the second entry, reads: “obscure and often pretentious language.” As you can see, the same word can either mean: a) that you are well-versed in your field, or b) that you are rather pedantic and use unnecessarily complicated words. This shows the power of language in its full potential.
When a group of people share their tasks and daily routines, they tend to come up with their own inside language, especially when referring to rather long or wordy things. Acronyms, idioms and the like become frequent and this is a good thing. They are a sign that the disaggregated group of individuals have now become a team. However, if we are not careful about this type of language use, we risk leaving newcomers out of the conversation.
This is why, even when they may sound knowledgeable (a desirable trait in the workplace) leaders may not realize that their employees, particularly those from different departments, regional branches or even from a different gender can feel excluded. As discussed above, belonging is a key element in creating a strong company culture, so it is advisable to use jargon carefully. Communication is two-way, and listening is as important as speaking. And feeling heard is also an important factor in employees wanting to stay with an employer.
How do successful companies improve their employee retention?
HR experts the world the around agree that strong mission and vision statements, inclusive communication and employee feedback are three main factors in employee happiness: statements, communication, and feedback. What do they all have in common? They all use words. The words we use in our mission and vision statement can either include or exclude, open doors or create barriers. Using the wrong language in a company training, for example, can create a perception of gender inequality, or racism. The truth of the matter is that, when it comes to employee retention and happiness, language matters.