When did Employee Become a Bad Word?

I recently passed a door on the back of a hotel labeled “Associates Entrance”, clearly meaning employee’s entrance. When did “employee” become a bad word? My sense is that in the past decade there has been a move by companies to refer to their low-wage service employees as “associates”, “partners”, “team members” or some other term that smacks of euphemism. I imagine the reasoning is that you can boost the morale of people doing menial work by giving them a respectful title. Specifically the respect turns on nullifying a power relationship: in an organization, a “boss” has more power and status than an “employee”, but two “associates” are peers. Even granting that this is being done in good faith, it seems like a mistake, because there is a power relationship, and pretending there’s not is an insult to everyone’s intelligence. And of course well-compensated, high-status software industry workers like myself are never referred to as anything other than “employees”. If word came down from H.R. where I work that we were to be referred to as “valued partners” or somesuch from now on it would be distinctly demoralizing–“Why the hell are they talking about us like we’re working the floor at Best Buy? Is the company in trouble?” The problem with euphemism is that people aren’t dumb.

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6 Responses to When did Employee Become a Bad Word?

  1. Chung-chieh Shan says:

    Indeed the problem with euphemism is that people aren’t dumb, so why do people (who aren’t dumb) keep using it? There ought to be another explanation. The same need for another explanation arises for other kinds of circumlocution. For example, a driver caught speeding says to the police officer, “is there any way we can just take care of this right here?” That’s such a blatant attempt at a bribe, so why not just make an explicit attempt at a bribe?

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    I was going for a snappy ending in the last sentence of that post rather than a thought out argument, and your question makes this apparent. The serious answer is that there’s a lot more to the communicative payload of an utterance than its literal meaning. Even if we expect no one to be fooled by the content of a euphemism, we still hope they will appreciate the gesture. Likewise, when offering a bribe to get out of a traffic ticket, the circumlocution is like a preliminary gift to indicate that you aren’t merely treating the officer like a merchant. My claim here (which only became clear in writing this answer) is that even the gesture behind the “associate/employee” euphemism has become cheapened from overuse.

  3. Ok but if the gesture behind the euphemism has become cheapened from overuse then why would anyone make the gesture? Is it because some language users (HR?) are dumber than others (workers?)?

    • W.P. McNeill says:

      At this point it just becomes another form of miscommunication. There are any number of reasons two people can fail to communicate. In this case I’d guess the issue isn’t a matter of H.R. departments being dumb, but rather being overly conservative and delicate in the way they phrase things. And who knows, maybe some people do appreciate the gesture.

  4. dpservis says:

    I am not a native speaker, but my impression is that there are different connotations. An employee is usually told what to do while an associate has some freedom to determine his work. I would call most of my colleagues “associates” of the company for this reason. Toyota calls its factory floor workers “associates” because they are entitled to determine how to best do their job and continuously improve it.

    My 2c…

    • W.P. McNeill says:

      I agree that “associate” has connotations of peer while “employee” has connotations of subordinate. What I’m talking about here is a euphemistic use of “associate” for people who really are subordinates.

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