People Are Not Direct Reports – How Language Reflects Power

Some of my colleagues may not like this but I have to share one of my pet peeves – use of the term “direct reports.”
A quick check of The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit defines the term as “the junior staffer in a supervisory/employer relationship; a common term for the people “managed” by a particular person that underscores the senior person’s power over the staffers, just in case they forget, will frequently be used in the possessive sense, i.e., “My direct reports,” and may be irritatingly truncated to, “My directs.”
Stay with me now, I know the term is common, acceptable and not meant to be pejorative – but it triggers me each time I hear it.
Let me try to explain why.
Before we begin, you should know I don’t plan to rant on about it – but simply want to use the term as a jumping off point to talk about language – the power of words, personally and collectively.
I know you know what I mean because we all have words that trigger us – words that push our hot buttons.  That’s the essence of the power of language – the ability to evoke deep feeling in a second.  But I’m getting ahead of myself if I say much more now.
Here’s what got me started.
I was listening to a compelling interview with Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist, activist, undocumented immigrant and founder of the website Vargas told reporters after his keynote address at the 2012 Online News Association Conference that he will begin monitoring the use of the phrase “illegal immigrant” in the media, with the goal of shifting the conversation around the issues.
Vargas announced that his two main targets for now will be the New York Times and the Associated Press.  Vargas, who has written about his own struggles with immigration in the New York Times, suggests that the media begin using the term “undocumented immigrant” or engage in a conversation about alternatives to using the term “illegal.”  “The term dehumanizes and marginalizes the people it seeks to describe,” Vargas said. “Think of it this way, in what other context do we call someone illegal?” Vargas uses the examples of underage drivers and people who drive while intoxicated, pointing out that the media would not refer to them as “illegal drivers.”
In response to Mr. Vargas’s challenge, Philip Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards at the Times wrote, “ in referring in general terms to the issue of people living in the United States without legal papers, we do think the phrases, “illegal immigrants” and “Illegal immigration” are accurate, factual and as neutral as we can manage under the circumstances. It is, in fact, illegal to enter, live or work in this country without valid documents. Some people worry that we are labeling immigrants as “criminals” – but we’re not. “Illegal” is not a synonym for “criminal.” One can park “illegally,” though it is not a criminal offense.
Fair enough.  It is illegal to live and work in the U.S. without valid documents – and people who work for other people within organizations are required to “report” to their managers.  These are facts.  But I don’t think getting the facts right is all that Mr. Vargas is concerned about.
Writing in the media-monitoring site Poynter, Andrew Beaujon reports that the New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan supports her employer’s decision to stick with the term after she and Mr. Vargas met. “Her job, Sullivan notes, does not grant her the ability to set Times style, but “illegal immigrants” strikes her as fair. Sullivan stated, “It is clear and accurate; it gets the job done in two words that are easily understood. The same cannot be said of the most frequently suggested alternatives, “unauthorized,” and “immigrants without legal status,” and “undocumented.”
Expediency, after all, is a big motivator in how and why we use certain language. But in our communication short cuts, what beliefs and values do we reinforce?

How PC is that?

Here’s another term that rattles me – PC – Political Correctness.  In popular use since the mid 1980’s, the term is a political, social and emotional hot potato with multiple and often obscured deeper meanings. Technically speaking, PC is a term used in American and some other cultures, to describe real or perceived attempts to impose limits on language and viewpoints in public discussion so as not to offend certain groups of people.  Being accused of acting too “PC” often carries a negative connotation implying that another person or group is acting excessively to limit another person or group’s “free speech.”
In her blog, Motherhood Uncensored,  writer Kristen Chase shares her perspective, “Political correctness has gotten a bad rap because it’s most often used in a pejorative manner where people get hung up on the term rather than what it’s all about; using respectful language when we talk about (and to) other people. When you complain about having to be politically correct, you’re bitching about having to use words that put people first rather than their condition or disability and respect their gender, cultural identification and ethnicity.”

Kristen makes the point that, like anything else, political correctness can be taken too far.  But as she rightly concludes, “When I hear people complain about “having to be politically correct,” roll their eyes, or make a call to “be politically incorrect!” because it somehow kills truth, it’s pretty clear that they probably have never had words used to oppress them.”

Every Time We Speak We Reveal Something About Who We Are

Although many people still believe that language is simply an expression of cognitive thought, the research shows that we’re always reflecting and mitigating emotions using language as our primary vehicle.  According to Sarah Ginty, from the Harvard School of Education, “Conversational style is about power. When you’re in charge, the words you choose place you in the center of a situation. When you’re not in control, you use qualifiers. You insert the little red flags that signal that you’re not trying to run the conversation.”
In his article on how multi-language environments affect child development, Rick Nauert, Ph.D. writes, “Existing research from psychological science underscores the fact that language plays a key role in emotion because it allows speakers to articulate, conceal and discuss feelings.”
“PC” advocates have long understood that language is about the assertion of power. This is true whether we are in a one on one conversation or part of the reference group being discussed in a large framework.
In an increasingly pluralistic society where the necessity (and for some, desire) for a more inclusive culture is evolving, language use becomes both the tool and the battleground for change. Our language is always changing to reflect shifts in perceptions, self-identities, attitudes and aspirations. Take the term “gay,” which has been steadily gaining acceptance both in the United States and Europe. The word’s origins first appear in 12th century England, derived from the Old French, “gai,” which meant, joyful, carefree and full of mirth.  By 1955, the term gay had acquired new meaning in self-describing homosexual men, who advocated for the change believing that the term homosexual was too clinical sounding.
The resistance to changing language mirrors the resistance many people and groups have to change in general.  Because language usually represents the powerful unconscious currents of identity in individuals and groups, resistance to change can run deep.  Often these struggles for personal identity run counter to the equally powerful forces of cultural changes around us.
But language isn’t static; it is, after all, a living expression of who we are as cultures. Guy Deutscher, an honorary research fellow at the School of Languages, Linguistics and Culture at the University of Manchester wrote in his  New York Times article, Does Language Shape How you Think?, “The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they  may also have marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly, but as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.”
The organizational model we live with today, with its stratified layers of power, may look to the worker of the future like a dinosaur. The language of tomorrow’s workplace will reflect changes that were made to create cultures of inclusion, parity and egalitarianism. And in some future examination of the workplace of the past – a time where words like reports, hires and subordinates – were commonly used, someone will ask they meant people, didn’t they?
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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You may also like: The Language We Use in the Workplace, Every Word Has Power (Watching Your Language Can Change the Way You Feel at Work) Humanizing the Workplace: People aren’t Tasks and Because I Said So: The Slow Death of Authoritarian Power


  1. April says:

    People don’t even notice how their language enables them not just to dehumanize each other, but then to make foolish decisions based on that psychology. I see this show up in teams/companies who like to refer to people as “resources”, too – it creates the idea that humans are somehow buckets of time that can be parceled out to projects.

    • Hi April,
      Yes, we do have a commodiified and compartmentalized view of people in the context of business. This is a serious collective mindset problem that is unraveling but will take a long time to unfold. One problem is that employees themselves often don’t see it. How we use language reinforces the values of companies and individuals. People allocated as time on projects paints a stark picture!
      thanks for commenting!

  2. […] Some of my colleagues may not like this but I have to share one of my pet peeves – use of the term “direct reports.” A quick check of The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit defines the term as “the j…  […]

  3. […] because my personal focus on communication research is within industrial context and work ethics: People Are Not Direct Reports – How Language Reflects Power […]

  4. […] “People Are Not Direct Reports – How Language Reflects Power” by Louise Altman on The Intentional Workplace blog. […]

  5. Dane says:

    I agree that the team “direct report” is fairly antiquated. What would you recommend as an alternative? Terms such as colleague, team member and co-worker are great in the general sense, but they do not represent the people managed by a particular person.

    • Hi Dane
      THanks for stopping by and commenting. I don’t have a good answer for the question. While I think it is clumsy referring to “Dane who works for Tom.” etc. it’s my preference over “Dane, Tom’s direct report.” “direct report” also has a ring of authoritarianism to it. No easy solutions to this – but people are people, not direct reports or new hires, etc.

      • imdane says:

        That would be my preference in conversation, but what about for an internal directory? I’d like to set up a label for the individuals who are direct reports and am struggling with what to display. This is something that would be visible to everyone in the company.

      • Did you ever come up with a better term for “direct reports” for displaying in an internal directory? I thought of something like “People served” or “direct team” or something similar, but they all seem so awkward.

        • Hi
          No actually I haven’t. You’re right, most terms are clumsy and awkward. we’re become used to terms like direct reports which I also find clumsy – among other things. I like
          People Served though it might sound pretentious to some.
          We’re open to suggestions and if I reprise the post, I will ask it upfront.
          Thanks for the follow-up – I will keep it in mind.

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