What Common HR Terms Mean (And Why It Matters to Everyone)

image of oranges at the top left corner with a purple diagonal line over a bunch of bananas in the bottom right cornerYou know those weird moments when you find yourself in the middle of a conversation, where you think you’re on the same page with someone else, only for your intuition to alert you, “Hey, I think you’re in a whole other chapter.”

I’m not talking about disputes, disagreements or even tension. I mean, you say fruit, and, metaphorically speaking, you’re thinking banana, and they’re thinking orange.

Awkward, right?

Then think about how challenging that is when you’re in the middle of a major strategic discussion about how to realign your people strategy to attract, onboard and retain great people. There is so much HR (human resources) jargon that it’s easy to speak completely different languages. And hey, it’s not HR’s fault! We are all at a serious disadvantage because the field is not on the same page.

So, given how many of you (including many of our scrumptious clients) are rolling up your sleeves and doing some huge people strategy planning and retention initiatives amid The Great Resignation, we thought it might make things easier if we provide some definitions for commonly used terms.

image of 2 keys containing the words Human Resources Debunking HR Terms

HR terms are often used interchangeably, with little agreement on definitions (even in the HR textbooks!) Here’s how we define and debunk terms for our clients in simple terms.


Traits tend to be ingrained – as Lady Gaga would say, “I Was Born This Way!” – and are pretty easily measured (e.g., personality tools such as Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator, DiSC). Traits tend not to be particularly adaptable without intentional effort. The good news is that all traits (in a healthy culture) are equally valued, so it elevates understanding of what each individual naturally brings to the table.


Knowledge tends to be what is known, even if it’s not displayed. Education, experience, and various personal and life lessons go into the massive body of knowledge.


Skills tend to be specific behaviours required to do a task; skills are acquired from doing something many times, and a gauge you have that “skill” is that you can train someone else to do it.


Capabilities are the knowledge and skills (see definitions above) you’ve acquired to do great work. You can adjust as the situation requires (behavioural examples that line up under a capability). Capabilities tend to be something you can do if asked and as the situation calls for it.


Competencies tend to be observable behaviours displayed on the job at a certain level of mastery; in essence, an imagination of knowledge, skills and performance combined. The behaviours result from abilities, skills, knowledge, motivations, and traits. For an in-depth list of competencies, check out this resource.

Core Competencies

Core competencies are specific types of competencies needed by everyone in the organization regardless of role; they represent key values and strengths shared by all. These distinctive characteristics make an organization stand out from their competition – its defining strength.


Organizational values are the beliefs and ideas shared (or should be shared) by all in a team or organization. It’s harder to quantify; however, being descriptive so we know what values look like; aligning capabilities to values is a very helpful way to ensure all are aligned between behaviours and values.

Okay, clear as mud? What other questions do you have about the most important HR people and culture terms you find yourself and your team using? We’re here to support you! Post your responses below.

Check out these previous posts for even more tasty tidbits:

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