This article gives an overview of teaching English for human resource professionals. It is linked to a ‘think about’ task on planning a sequence of lessons.


Human resources management used to be called personnel management, but the job is still about managing the people in an organization. The key to teaching any group of people with specific needs lies in accurate needs analysis, and then meeting those needs effectively. In this respect human resource professionals are the same as any other group. So this article looks at who HR professionals are, what they do, who they communicate with for which purposes, what their needs are and how their needs can be met for effective teaching and training.

What do HR people do?

The human resource department covers many roles, from the department head, who may be on the board of directors, to senior and middle managers, and junior managers and HR assistants dealing with day-to-day enquiries. At any one time the HR professional may fill a variety of roles, including being a specialist advisor, an internal consultant, a business manager, an industrial relations negotiator and an administrator. One of the most useful course books for teaching English for HR, English for Human Resources by Pat Pledger, lists the main functions of HR on the contents page as sections in the book:

  • Recruitment
  • Selection
  • Employee relations
  • HR development
  • Reward and remunerations
  • Industrial relations

What kind of training is available?

The six functions listed above are the basic functions carried out by an HR department, and they form a very useful framework for teaching. But of course there is a range of professional activities within each function because administrators, managers and directors all have varying needs. All of these professionals come on English language training courses delivered in different circumstances. At one end of the spectrum HR people are taught alongside other learners, but at the top end of the market there are training programmes provided by organizations specializing in English for HR. These programmes offer more than simple language training, putting language and HR issues together in order to provide professionals with development in their own fields of expertise, something that is very important to the high-fliers, strategists and visionaries often to be found in HR.

What are HR people like?

Is there a common profile for HR learners? Can we generalize about the kind of learners they are? Well, HR involves development and training, and so learners can be quite informed about the process of learning. That means they will be looking closely at the programme they are on and the way it’s delivered. Also they are likely to get quite involved in the learning process and will be highly motivated, provided that it’s all done well. So there’s a good chance they’ll be inquisitive, chatty and good communicators.

What are HR learners’ needs?

So what are HR people’s needs and how do we meet them? First, like most managers in business, they need to have knowledge of:

  • the type of business they work in, for example insurance or banking
  • the company or organization they work for, for example Direct Line or HSBC
  • their field of work, in this case human resources, as well as specialities relating to their work, such as employment law.
  • but they also have their own very specific needs, most importantly:
    - specific vocabulary
    - communication skills
    - subject-specific material

HR vocabulary

Vocabulary is extremely important for HR people in particular. They have their own set of specialist vocabulary and it’s essential for them to know it and to be able to use it appropriately. There are three main areas:

  • fundamental terms: the common words used normally in HR
  • old words in new ways
  • fashionable words

Fundamental HR terms

Many HR terms are country and even company specific. For example, the field of employment law has a specific terminology of its own which varies because of different practice in different countries. Trainees need to be aware of country- and company-specific terminology and, in some cases, they need to be able to explain key concepts and distinctions. HR certainly has its fair share of fundamentally specialist vocabulary. This is reflected by Steve Flinders’ book Key Terms in People Management, which contains the most comprehensive and up-to-date source of terminology for any business function that I’m aware of. ‘Key terms’ includes words from all three groups, and is also strong on fundamental HR terms like:

  • interview
  • appraisal
  • line manager
  • mediate
  • deadlock
  • project manager
  • redundancy

Old words in new ways

HR is constantly reinventing itself and the language it uses, so there are many old words with new meanings. For example, using the term ‘human resources’ rather than ‘staff’ or ‘employee’ emphasizes the fact that the people working for that company are a potential asset that can be invested in and developed. Other examples include:

  • redeployment
  • rationalization
  • letting someone go

Fashionable words

The third group, fashionable words, are the words that are very much of the moment, words that have become important to deal with the issues of the time. Usually they will come into use as fashionable words, and then as they become more common, they become part of the first group, the fundamental HR vocabulary. This group includes words like:

  • transition
  • transformation
  • capabilities
  • leadership
  • performance

Learning the vocabulary of HR is only one part of an HR person’s training but it’s important not to underestimate its importance, because the specialist vocabulary for HR is so large. I’ve seen HR managers’ faces light up when they look through lists of ‘Key Terms,’ especially when they include a translation!

Business communication skills

The next main way to meet HR learners’ needs is to look at their communication requirements and at the business communication skills they need to use. In many ways, these needs are very like those of other managers in business. Like them, HR people need to:

  • socialize
  • make presentations
  • negotiate
  • write reports
  • take part in and chair meetings
  • communicate informally with colleagues

These skills and the language that goes with them are all well catered for in course books like Market Leader (which has a really useful unit on HR),  In Company, and in York Associates’ (who run specialist English for HR courses) ‘Effective Skills’ series, particularly Effective Meetings and Effective Negotiating. But HR people also have skills that they arguably use more than other managers, specifically:

  • interviewing
  • appraising
  • mediating
  • resolving conflict

There is less material available for these, although English for HR is a clear and very useful exception, with plenty of skills and language practice specifically for HR.

Specific professional communication for HR

Much of an HR manager’s communication is informal, often with colleagues on a one-to-one basis using skills such as persuasion, facilitation of communication, probing and eliciting information. What these skills are and the language they use will vary between different functions in HR, different companies, cultures and even individuals. Closely tailored training needs to analyze these differing needs and provide effective solutions, for example in the form of role plays and simulations, and the preparation that goes with them.

Case studies

Case studies are a good way to address specific needs in HR, because if learners bring their own case studies (names and places etc can be changed to protect confidentiality), then there is enormous scope for relevant language and skills work. Different stages in case study activity usually need to include:

  • choosing the case study
  • explaining the case
  • discussing issues in the case
  • communication activities drawn from the case (eg role play or simulation)
  • language work from the above


Whether you are teaching one-to-one or in groups, HR professionals are usually keen to talk, and topics that are central to the environment they work in make the best topics for structured discussion and speaking activities, particularly around corporate and HR culture, and international differences in HR culture.

Usually HR people will have plenty to talk about and know they have plenty to learn. There are good specialist materials for them, and much of the non-specialist management course books are useful to them, too. Their work is not always directly related to the more business-driven functions, but they need business communication skills just like professionals in other parts of a company. HR people tend to readily engage with training and the trainer, and working with them can often be stimulating and thought provoking.

Useful references and materials

Comfort J and Utley D 1996 Effective Meetings York Associates (Oxford University Press)
Comfort J 1998 Effective Negotiating York Associates (Oxford University Press)
Cotton D Falvey D and Kent S 2001 Market Leader [upper intermediate] (Longman)
Flinders S 2005 Key Terms in People Management York Associates
Pledger P 2005 English for Human Resources (Cornelson Verlag)
Powell M 2005 In Company (Macmillan Publishing Limited)

Think about …


Imagine that you are planning the training programme for a group of HR professionals, with a mid-intermediate level of English. Plan a sequence of three two-hour sessions with them. Imagine you have already had a couple of two-hour sessions, dealing with introductions to learners and their companies, some vocabulary and discussion on HR issues, and perhaps have prepared for an interactive activity in the next session. In bullet-point form give three or four main activities for each of the three sessions. For example, one session’s bullet-point programme could be:

Session 1

  1. Cover feedback from previous session on HR issues (20 minutes)
  2. Presentations on HR differences in the UK and the rest of Europe (45 minutes)
  3. Preparation for simulated negotiation (20 minutes)
  4. Vocabulary focus – ‘Developing People’ (Key Terms in People Management) (25 minutes)

You could use what you have read in the article to address learners’ needs (vocabulary, communication skills, etc), activities that relate to them, and issues like timing and sequencing. You might also like to look at the article on teaching simulations When you have finished you could look at the model and compare your thinking to the tips given with the model.