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Employee vs. Associate: What Should You Call Your People?

Capitalist Note - had someone lecture me about the need to call people "associates" last week. I like that tag fine, but I told them the story outlined below. On my mind, so I'm rerunning the post.

Short answer: It doesn't matter, your actions are much more meaningful than the tag you use..

Short story.  I was a young up and comer in a Director-level position with a Fortune 500 back in the early Elmo and Darth Vader 2000s - way more responsibility than my resume and age said I deserved.  I was at a national HR meeting - top 20 people in HR in the company, the corporate functional HR heads (comp, benefits, etc.) and all the field leaders.  I don't remember how it came up, but I offered up a cut and dry opinion that we shouldn't call our talent employees - we should be calling them "associates"...

And the Darth Vader of HR at the company (a great guy BTW) proceeded to absolutely assassinate me in front of the group with a 5 minute rant on why that was pure Bull#### (quote).

What he said, I later came to realize, was the truth.  If you're going to be cute with what you call employees, you better deliver on whatever promise you think you're making.  Additionally, you can just keep calling your people "employees" and do all the upstream stuff you think the other names indicate and you'll end up in the same place.  Without risking looking like a moron.

He was right.  He gave me a Nancy Kerrigan whack at the knees.  He later tried to promote me into a higher position in the West that would have required big relo.  I said no based on my gut about the division head I would have been working for.  7 months later Darth flew in and shut down the office I would have been leading from.  

Nothing but lessons from that guy.  Trust your gut when it comes to career.  And it doesn't make one ### worth of difference what you call the people who work for your company.  All that matters is how you treat them and what you've got planned for them.

Thanks Darth.



Great article! All that information aside, Wal-Mart calls their employees "associates", and we know how well they're treated...
In my line of work (temporary staffing/recruiting), I prefer clients be clients and employees be employees - makes things a lot less confusing and everyone (for the most part) can tell the difference between those terms.

Kelly O

I could not possibly agree more. I see more discussion of associates v. employees, even customers v. guests... it doesn't matter what you call them, until you act like you care you could call them Grand Poobah and it would not make any difference.


I don't know, if you are on the receiving end of a crappy title its no fun.

Early in my career, the department I was in reorganized and I went from an Account Executive to an Account Analyst. How do you tell your buddies you are an analyst? Pretty sad.

Jocelyn Aucoin

DARTH!!! PS. Holding to this analogy/photo, does this make you Elmo?


JA -

That does make me elmo! Plus, I'm fascinated by human depictions of Darth. Is this one of them? Probably not...



I and my colleagues got called associates. Meanwhile major changes were made in the software we used to perform our job duties without consulting us. Someone sold the CEO on garbage that we then had to put up with. So we roll our eyes in disgust when called associates. If you're not going to consult with me even on what tools I need to do my job, then call me an employee. You're sure not treating me like an associate. And now you're not only disrespectful, you're also a hypocrite.

Aaron Strout

Blog writes very fascinating, expect more good article.

Steve Lovig

Kris, as usual, good thoughts. I worked for an organization that decided, while on an "Executive Retreat" that we would return to our offices and begin calling employees "teammates!" No explanation why, no other outward changes, just "teammates." Totally meaningless; within 6 months, I had to lay off HUNDREDS of "teammates" when the company started having financial issues. Calling them "teammates" did not help their unemployment situation. STEVE


Great thoughts. I live by the mantra that it's better to under promise and over deliver rather than the other way around.

Calling employees anything other than employees can quickly become an "over-promise." And you'll soon find you've set yourself for some un-named expectations.

I've never understood what's so bad about being an employee. Yes, many of us get meaning from our work -- but bascially it's a financial transaction. If we quit paying our people, I imagine most of them will quit showing up.

Josh Westbrook

This has something to do with not overpromising and undelivering. Rather, underpromise and overdeliver.


Good thoughts, generally fits under the ethos of the less bulls**t the better when it comes to people, they're smart enough to see through it!


You got to go with your gut in this case as well. Are they employees or are they associates? If you treat them like employees (and there is nothing wrong with that) then call them that. It is better to be honest with yourself and with your people.


Ugh, "associate" makes me cringe. Are they part of an organized crime circle? There is just something seedy about it. I work for an employee-owned company and we use "owner-employees" or, when we turn off our job-ad voices, we remember they are co-workers, and most even have names! :-)

Scott Mattison - The TIRE Principleā„¢

Great, humbling article. Beware the "associate" tag until I am proud to be "associate-d" with you :)


Could not agree more. I'm an employment lawyer and people call me all the time. They don't complain about their title, they complain about how their boss treated them. Simple as that.


Enjoyed reading this.

Ben Arnold

Fabulous article! Even 5 years later! Thank you so much!

Michael Byerly

Loved the article and agree 100%. Although, aren't there companies who offer workers profit share? If yes, wouldn't that make them actual associates? On a separate but lighter subject, should you have called it a Tonya Harding Whack to the knees? Tonya being the whacker after all! (just kidding)


I got lectured about not capitalizing the word "Associate" when referring to our "associates", can someone explain why?

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