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“Subordinates”–a Word to Avoid

I recently led a business communications class for a group of global executives in Seattle, Washington. Many of them spoke English as a second, third, or fourth language. When I asked them about their learning goals, several mentioned wanting to communicate more effectively with subordinates.

Graphic illustrating the word "subordinate". This term typically has a negative connotation, communicates the idea of someone being less than, and belittles the contribution of someone.

Here is a way to instantly improve that communication: Stop calling them “subordinates.” In the United States, the word subordinate has a negative connotation. It communicates the idea of someone who is “less than.” Although “subordinates” do by definition have a job that is smaller than that of their manager, suggesting that they are “less than” belittles their contribution.

Another term to avoid is “people under me,” which paints the wrong picture and hints vaguely at scandalous behavior.

These are good alternatives for “subordinates” and “people under me”: employees, staff, team, team members, teammates, workers, assistants, associates, and individual contributors. Another excellent option is to use people’s job titles.

In your English-speaking country, which terms do you use? Are “subordinates” and “people under me” acceptable terms? Please share your views. You can help communicators around the globe learn from your experience and achieve their communication goals.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

7 comments on ““Subordinates”–a Word to Avoid”

  • In the trenches, we use the term “reports to” a manager but the company in its political correctness and to *seem* nice refers to us being “supported by” a manager, indicating that we are doing all the work and the manager clears the way to let us do our jobs. Now if only it really worked that way 😉

  • Hi, Anne. Thanks for mentioning “reports.” I had forgotten about that one.

    I’m sorry you have to live in the real world! It would be terrific if work worked the other way.

  • I work in a government department in Australia and I recently came across the use of ‘direct reports’ as a noun referring to the people who report directly to a supervisor. Is this a common usage (and I’m just out of the ‘govspeak’ loop), or is it truly as odd and confusing as it seems?

  • Hi, Maggie. “Direct reports” is used commonly in the U.S. As you indicate, it means people who report directly to someone.

    I’ve been reading and hearing it for a few years, so it doesn’t sound odd to me. Have I been brainwashed? Yikes!

  • I work for a large multi-state health care organization.
    “Direct reports” is used frequently.

    I like the terms “co-worker”, “team members” and “team”.

  • Hi, Emmer. Thanks for commenting.

    Here is a tip: If you work in the U.S., your commas and periods belong inside the quotation marks.


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