Is it Time to Discard the Word “Talent?”

I realize the irony of writing this blog post just a few short days after dropping the word “talent” as liberally as one showers colored sprinkles on fairy bread.

Those of us working in the HR and Recruiting space love using the word “talent.” It sounds sexy and modern. It sparks our souls and fires up our endorphins in ways that terms like Human Resources, Recruiting and Human Capital don’t. Calling ourselves talent professionals or designating our functions as talent entities/machines/champions conveys that we are proactive, forward looking and deeply focused on nurturing wholly integrated organizational models related to the attraction, development, motivation and retention of high-performing employees in order to drive business success.

We’ve created job titles, re-named departments and functions, and built entire organizational business models using this somewhat nebulous and elusive term. There are Talent Acquisition leaders, Chief Talent Officers, Talent Development functions and Talent Management vendors, systems and products.

But what do we mean by “talent?”

Are we talking about people’s innate and/or current abilities or their potential when placed in the right environment and with the right support? Are we holding on to the 1997 McKinsey exhortation to focus on the “best and brightest?”  The best today, after all, may not hold on to that-which-makes-them-the-best and may not be the best next week, while the brightest may settle in place, let his mind atrophy, and lose all his sharpness and distinction.

More troubling to me, however, is the thought that we only use the label talent within certain industries, or, worse yet, we only bestow the moniker on certain individuals or those who hold specific positions within an organization. Does a large retail or hospitality company with 40,000 employees really consider their minimum-wage part-time workers ‘talent’?  I don’t care if the recruiter who manages the hourly recruiting process is called a Talent Acquisition Specialist, it’s highly doubtful they consider Alice Applicant (for a part-time clerk position at store #1846) “talent” they desperately need to acquire.

This lack of clarity around the word and its use may be due to organizational size and/or industry; in some companies the workforce is comprised of the highly skilled knowledge workers and leaders …. and everyone else.  

Yet, as the way we work continues to shift and evolve will the rising swell of contract workers, project workers and freelancers be considered talent – or commodities? Will that matter?  Perhaps not from a “get the work done” standpoint. Yet I wonder if it will further exacerbate the divide and ensure that a certain class of employees are talent, some are expendable cogs in the wheel, and others are a la carte items to be plucked off the menu at the cheapest price.

I know what I mean when I reference talent – I consider it connecting the right person, whether because of their ability or their potential, who fits the needs of the organization, at a specific time.  This person (the talent) can then, through a combination of personal skills and initiative and organizational support, continue to be the right person. Here’s the time when organizations (and managers) develop rather than discard. When they manage rather than abandon. When they support rather than sweep away.

I guess we don’t need to dispense with the term “talent.”  If we’re clear and consistent (not just in words but also in action) within our organizations we’ll truly be supporting both the talents and the potential of the people to whom we assign the moniker.


Robin Schooling, Principal HR + People Strategy Consultant with Peridus Group, has worked the HR and Recruiting beat in various leadership roles since the days of the fax machine and rolodex. She’s a global speaker, has been blogging for a decade, and is co-host of Drive Thru HR. Find her on Twitter and you might get to see pictures of her three (yes, 3) dogs. 

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