Why You Should Care About Language

Language – it’s what separates us from other animals. It helps us communicate, creates art, literature and religions. It is the basis of culture. Civilisations are built on it. It is the cornerstone of democracy.

It is important. And it matters … it really does.

What we say and how we say it matters.

If it didn’t we wouldn’t have such a kerfuffle right now over terms like ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, and pronouns. In Australia in the lead up to a Referendum, we wouldn’t have seen the subtle shift from “traditional custodians” to “traditional owners” – for a culture that doesn’t believe in land ‘ownership’. Politicians understand the power of language. Marketers understand it.

In the Virtual Assistant industry, the choice of words can obscure the understanding of a VA/client relationship – even what a VA is. As members of the industry we have a responsibility to ensure the marketplace understands the distinction between a VA, freelancers, someone you hire, and an employee – because there are legal ramifications if it doesn’t.

Here’s how language can create all kinds of problems if you’re not careful.

Language and the Virtual Assistant Industry

A post in a VA group asked what members wanted potential clients to know “before hiring a VA.” The responses took a different route than anticipated, focusing on the notion that clients don’t hire VAs. Hiring implies employment, and some suggested replacing ‘hire’ with ‘work with’ or ‘partner with’. These suggestions were met with resistance. Eventually – because the poster was effectively being told she had it backwards – she said ‘Well you can define your section of the industry how you like and I can define it how I like’.

Image: Getting language wrong can open a can of worms legally speaking

What an interesting place we would live if this applied to all industries! We may currently live in a world where there are fluid definitions for gender, where people can choose the pronouns they wish to be known by, that academics are telling us what new terms we should be using to describe mothers for example … or even how to define what a woman is – and so it’s probably understandable that entrants to this decades old industry similarly feel that it doesn’t matter what terms they use.

In terms of educating the public, it does.

Applying Logical Consistency

Consider the aviation industry: the navigator isn’t mistaken for the pilot despite they work together in the same industry.

Or an operating theatre. There are many different fields of expertise in an operating theatre: the nurses, the anaesthetist, the surgeon – and whilst they all work in the medical industry a nurse would never consider themselves a surgeon and would certainly not tell surgeons how they should describe themselves.

Similarly, if you are a digital marketing expert who works in the virtual space, that doesn’t make you a VA – that makes you a digital marketing expert who provides your services remotely. However one commenter told us that this is actually what a VA is – ‘a digital marketing expert who provides services remotely’.

Clients Contract VAs, Not Hire Them

VAs are independent contractors, offering a range of skills beyond such a narrow scope. A professional VA partners with clients long-term to move their businesses forward in a positive way. This is why clients do not hire VAs but contract them.

This person even said that client’s onboard VAs. Actually, it’s the other way around: VAs onboard clients. This is not our interpretation of the industry – it is not opinion – it’s fact.

Many of the opinions expressed were often from people unrelated to the industry.

One such non-VA commenter suggested today’s business owners perceive a VA as someone assisting with virtual outreach and marketing. However, this doesn’t align with the actual definition of a VA. There are VAs who specialise in marketing but that’s one niche of the industry – much like a nurse is one niche of the medical industry.

Defining Industry Terms

To provide clarity, let’s define some industry terms:

  • A VA is an entrepreneurial business owner – a highly-skilled, independent professional who provides remote administrative, technical and/or creative business support services to clients locally, nationally or globally.
  • A freelancer takes on single tasks or projects, often bidding via platforms like Fivvr.
  • A contractor is contracted to a business for short or long-term or per project. (VAs do contract to clients on short-term projects as needed. As independent contractors they do have contracts in place with clients.)
  • A person employed or hired by your business to work remotely is a teleworker or remote worker.

Navigating Client Perception

The argument for using language that resonates with potential clients does hold merit. However, clients partnering with a VA should be understood as distinct from hiring workers. My clients know they partner with me; they don’t hire me and therefore I’m not an employee.

Another non-VA commenter referred to a discovery call or preliminary meeting as a job interview!! This language is the language of employment and that opens a big can of worms.

A discovery call is a ‘getting to know you’ opportunity for us both, so both parties can determine whether they want to work together. It is vital for success that clients don’t consider the relationship master/servant.  I don’t send a CV to my clients.

There are so many people out there now using the incorrect terminology – because it’s Upwork and Fivrr terminology – and that is not the place to find professional VAs who are going to become long-term partners in your success.

When I said that my clients partner with me the response was “Business owners don’t speak like that”. I’m a business owner. My clients are business owners. We all speak like that!

Legal Implications of Getting it Wrong

A business owner who hires people is not the same as a business owner who contracts a VA (an independent contractor).

The shift in language carries legal and tax implications. If you ‘hire’ workers there is the potential that the government will view those workers as employees for tax and superannuation purposes. Even if you sign a contract with them.

If you use words like ‘hire’, ‘hiring process’, or any other iteration of the same concept, you are styling the VA as an employee and the relationship is no longer independent.

Check out the ATO’s page – they have employee/contractor tools that can show you how getting it wrong could impact your business.

The Bottom Line

In a world where language carries profound weight, precision matters. The term ‘partnering with a VA’ has been in use for decades and carries the clarity needed to distinguish between contracting a VA and hiring an employee. Let’s embrace this terminology to not only ensure accurate representation but also uphold the integrity of the virtual assistant industry.

Language matters!

©Lyn Prowse-Bishopwww.execstress.com