It’s Time To Peel Off The Labels Of Our Past

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It’s time that we re-think some overly common terminology if we truly seek to foster respect and inclusiveness in the workplace.

I applaud the efforts of organizational leaders who take well-considered steps to promote the core values of respect and inclusiveness. But can we agree that sometimes just a few not-so-well-considered words will undermine even the most carefully designed, well-intentioned actions? It’s time that we re-think some overly common terminology if we truly seek to foster respect and inclusiveness in the workplace.

“Revenue-Producing Employees”

Sadly, I still hear this term all the time. I know that it usually is not intended to demean others, but regardless of the intent, the term can be divisive and belittling. It’s also an anachronism and an oversimplification.

When we say that certain employees are “revenue-producing,” we either are saying or implying that other employees are not. In turn, we may be suggesting that the employees who are not revenue-producing are less valuable because, well, they are not responsible for bringing in the revenue that sustains the company.

Yet, here’s a simple reality to consider. If you have employees who are not performing a valued function at your company, then maybe they should not be at your company. If they are performing a valued function, for which you are paying them, then they probably are revenue-producing. Yes, employees who are directly engaged in sales or customer services are generating revenue. But can they generate even a dollar of revenue without the people who work on products, marketing, communications, personnel, administration, finance, legal compliance, strategy or management? Of course not!

It’s time to recognize that in a company that generates revenue, all employees who serve a function that requires their employment are responsible for generating revenue. When we say “revenue-producing employees” in a way that suggests otherwise, we are implying something else—and it’s usually not something that promotes a feeling that all employees are valued and respected.

“Producers” and “Support Staff”

See above. Again, I think that most people who divide companies into these categories do so without the intention of aggrandizing certain people and diminishing others, but I’d make the same arguments here as I did above.

“Front-Line Employees” Who Are “In the Trenches”

These terms not only are rooted in warfare, but warfare from a century ago. More importantly, they can be construed as glorifying the “valiant” employees who may be dealing directly with current or prospective customers—at the expense of those who are not (and are instead “behind the lines” and not “in the trenches”). Again, this construct serves only to glorify certain positions while demeaning or diminishing others.

At the risk of perpetuating an unhelpful and inaccurate comparison of business to war, some might argue that these terms instead are merely intended to refer to “the soldiers” of an organization and “the generals” who are behind the scenes orchestrating strategy. Maybe, but if we are using terminology to suggest that our businesses are behaving in a militaristic manner, then we need to rethink that too.


This term is yet another variation on a similar theme. If you are “overhead” at an organization, then you are part of the ancillary cost structure associated with running the business—you know, like rent and computers. If you are not, congratulations—you are part of the “core” business. When we use terms like “overhead” to describe our fellow human beings, we need to be mindful what we may be implying.

“Essential and Non-Essential Employees”

These terms are trickier. I understand that they often are used by governments or organizations that comprise our national infrastructure. And I understand that, for example, sometimes a government or infrastructure company must call upon certain employees—and only those employees—to show up for work.

But do we really need to use this kind of harsh terminology at organizations that are not in the above categories? Can’t we come up with language that speaks to functions, like engineering or accounting, as a way to achieve the same results? Or are we really committed to messaging to some employees that they are not essential while others are?

“Exempt and Non-Exempt Employees”

For a variety of purposes, the labor laws classify workers into “exempt” and “non-exempt” employees. In turn, organizations must be familiar with the rules surrounding the employment of people falling into these categories. They also have a duty to ensure that their employees understand their rights as assigned to their respective classification.

Yet, these same organizations do not need to refer repeatedly to people as exempt and non-exempt other than in the context of discharging their legal obligations. Some employees may feel less important, for example, when they are repeatedly referred to as “non-exempt,” if only because the law sees them as needing greater protections. In turn, “exempt” employees may feel more qualified or more valued because they are assumed by the law to require fewer protections. Again, companies would do better to use these terms as necessary for legal purposes and otherwise use other language.

In the end, perhaps the best message to organizations seeking to promote cultures of respect and inclusion is not only to be more aware of the potentially negative implications of certain commonplace labels but also to reconsider broad labels altogether. As part of that process, we might also learn something by examining why these labels became so common in the first place.

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