What’s in a Name?
Some Thoughts on Outdated Work Language
We need some new language for talking about work, in part because the structure of how we do our work is in flux.
A primary care doctor sets up his or her own office, but is affiliated with a healthcare system and the billing is done through that system.So how do we talk about this doctor? Not as an employee. Certainly not as a worker. An affiliate? That sounds wrong, and vague as well. An independent contractor? That could mean anything.
Another example could be a director in a small company, a start-up for example. The heavy responsibility probably does not correlate to the level of pay, which may be artificially or temporarily low. And titles at a start-up are practically meaningless, and often faddish and confusing as well.
The upshot is that this person may feel simultaneously like an investor, taking a risk; an overworked employee with little leeway regarding tasks, timelines and objectives; and an executive with both the authority and the obligation to set strategy, motivate others and embody the company’s values.
The terms we've developed over the years don't really reflect the range of reality many of us experience. Our work relationships with one another and with organizations have become more complex over time. Doctors or arts organization managers don’t consider themselves employees, though they may be in a technical sense.
Even those who have formal contracts in place and issue W9’s at the end of each year do not typically think of their web of collaborators as employees. That word smacks of having an HR department, managing payroll, and other corporate trappings, which does not reflect the day-to-day reality or nature of relationships for many doctors, arts managers, independent consultants, coaches, writers, graphic designers or entrepreneurs–– the list goes on and on.
They do see themselves as part of a team though. And they see their collaborators as part of their team as well. So do many people running or working in small businesses. So that team identity seems to offer a clue, though “team member” sounds a bit bloodless.
In this newsletter, and in my forthcoming book, Rising Together, I've been wrestling with how to refer to people who produce things of value for society but may have less formal relationships with their organization, or bring specialized skills and insights that words like employer and worker don’t reflect. How do we move beyond the old modes of expressing the relationship between people and organizations?
Your observations and insights are welcome in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you.