The last thing you need is employees.

Don’t get me wrong; You absolutely DO need these people. It’s the name “employee” that could be a problem.

Many years ago, Walt Disney started describing people in his company with more creative names such as “Imagineers” or “Cast Members.” These descriptors signified their unique value to the business, and a shift in mindset and relationship.

What’s the problem with “employees”? Well, it’s limited to a very generic description of the relationship. The company’s job is to provide employment, that is, pay for work. The employee’s job is to do the work.

From the government’s point of view, these general terms are necessary. But your company is doing something quite specific, for customers who care about that, with a workforce composed of real people rather than generic worker drones.

Some companies have adopted the word “associate” to help people feel more valued and involved. I have to say that I still find that a bit weak. Partially because all it really says is that you “associate with the others in the company,” which doesn’t mean much of anything. And partially because so many people use it that it no longer helps people feel special.

We can get down to the specific roles, of course, and that’s what job titles are for. You’re a CEO. I’m a Vice President. She’s a Software Engineer.

But we do need terms which talk about groups of people collectively, not just individuals with different titles. How do we do this?

It all comes down to what’s important in your company culture.  Let’s say that we have a flat and democratic organization, with few distinctions with fancy titles. No Chief Something Officers, no Presidents.

Yet “workers” and “employees” and “staff” feel too generic; they say nothing about the uniqueness of our company and culture.

Our group of 10 people is all about working collaboratively, being creative, taking ownership, and delivering on our mission of creating unique insight for our customers.

Are we “Partners”? That builds off the collaboration aspect, but unfortunately in some industries that term has been used to signify a specially distinct and separate role. There’s “The Partners” who are special, and then all the support staff, who are by implication not so special.

Are we “Owners”? Well, that’s actually a legal term so we’d better make sure it’s actually true if we use it.

Are we “Creatives”? Perhaps; now this is stretching out of the box a little more. It certainly does reinforce that aspect of our culture, and perhaps might be quite attractive to customers.

Are we “Insightophiles”? Sure, I just made it up, riffing off of one of the concepts on my list. So we’ll have to explain it to each person we talk with, and we’ll get some raised eyebrows. But that may be just the kind of interaction which helps us feel special, and work differently than other companies.

There’s sometimes room for two word phrases. Are we “Team Members”? Sounds a bit bland and generic, but some companies have gone this direction. It sounds very egalitarian.

Or are we “Customer Champions”? That’s an interesting phrase, and certainly reinforces that we put our customers at the top of our org chart.

As you can see, this is more of an art than a science. There’s usually no clear best answer. So why bother?

Because it powerfully defines the culture of your company. Employees feel special. Customers notice a difference. It can help define decision-making paths and organizational roles.

And, yes, it can be fun to stand out from the crowd.

This article was first published in InnovatioNews.