Head office jargon translated

It is said that power corrupts – which is true. It corrupts the power to talk like a normal human being. While workers on the ground can have a normal conversation, using phrases that pretty much anyone could understand, it sometimes seems like those based at HQ are working from another language. Here, we’ve had a look at some of the more indecipherable turns of phrase that the CEO, Managing Director and anyone even remotely close to them are likely to be using – often as a means of covering up the fact that they, like everybody else, doesn’t really have a clue what is going on.

Run it up the Flagpole

Apparently deriving from George Washington – when delivered with the new American flag, he suggested they they “run it up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes it” – the actual origins appear to be from the world that hit TV series Mad Men is set in – the boozy, smoke filled rooms of advertising agencies on Madison Avenue, New York. This is a classic case of those in the know making something relatively simple sound a lot more complex and exotic than it actually is. When someone suggests that they ‘run it up the flagpole’, what they actually mean is that they’ll give it a try and see what happens. But, of course, that would be too mundane for a regional director to say in a group e-mail, so we’re stuck with this one.

Don Draper from Mad Men


A vague term, but one that has been used in every boardroom around the world every day since longer than anybody could care to remember. Those at Head Office use Leverage to make their position and influence sound much greater than it actually is – like they’re trying to prise open a door with a crowbar, when actually all they’re doing is using something. So, if someone is suggesting that the company ‘leverages our social media base’, what they actually mean is ‘let’s send a tweet and a couple of facebook updates out’, or if they want to ‘leverage customer support’, they’re getting the call centre to deal with something. But saying ‘use’ doesn’t really give across the mental image of rugged masculinity of ‘leveraging’


As a means of making sure that they just don’t sound like paper pushers, those in power like to use terms that make it seem like they’re actually producing results outside of numbers of spreadsheets. Yield – something you’d normally associate with a farmer totting up how much wheat they’ve managed to coax out of a field in any particular season – manages that, giving those at headquarters the impression that they’re an old agricultural baron, spending hours on the fields to make sure that they get their serfs to make more grain than ever. In effect, all Yield really means is ‘cause’ or ‘result’ – so, ‘our advertising campaign yielded enormous amounts of new custom’ just means that people saw whatever the company put on TV and decided to start using the business. Great work, serfs.

Paradigm Shift

This sits up there with the less scientific ‘gamechanger’ as a term that bosses like to throw about on the odd occasion where they do have a half decent idea – or, indeed, when they’re scared for their jobs because the competition have managed to create a half decent product and is outselling you. A Paradigm Shift just translates as the focus of the business has changed slightly, either for better or worse (usually worse) and that everyone will have to quickly get into line with that. So ‘Our competitors online store has created a paradigm shift’ means that you’re likely going to be desperately trying to launch your own web store very soon because your rival has managed to make a few more sales than you.


Another one of those phrases that make a manager sound like they’re doing more than they actually are. Backfills origins lay in engineering, where a hole is filled with excavated earth – the business use of backfill just means that your boss is going to be hiring somebody new for the role from which somebody has just been sacked. It may not be exciting, but it at least creates the mental image of your line manager desperately trying to work a shovel to fill a pothole.


There’s almost a poetry to the jargon of sunset. Whereas before, cancelling or ending a project was enough to get across what the CEO meant, now we have the romantic notion of some poor arm of the business driving off into a deep haze of orange and yellow and watching its final day come to an end. Of course, this is just a typical way of head office trying to soften the blow wanting to cut a few jobs and save on costs, but you’ve got to appreciate the effort they’ve gone to at least.

Vertical Integration

Perhaps the most complex and the most boring of all these strange, otherworldly terms that you’re likely to find in your inbox. To the uninitiated, Vertical Integration could sound like a vastly painful procedure you might have done at a hospital – in the board room, it just means that the business has other businesses that are linked to it that do jobs for one another. So a supermarket might own a factory that produces bread for it – vertical integration – or a paper seller might invest in a paper mill – vertical integration – or an online shop might also run a delivery service – vertical integration. If we’ve learnt anything here, it’s that those making the big money like to give across the idea that they’re much more knowledgeable than they are by using a lexicon of words no-one else could care less about – a form of vertical integration in a league of its own.