I've noted that some US companies call people working for them "associates," rather than "employees." (I've seen that term in less-than-stellar retail and fast-food chains)

What would be the difference in meaning? And what is the origin this nomenclature shift?

  • I have worked at large US financial institutions that also call their employees associates.
    – rajah9
    Dec 14, 2015 at 14:08
  • In most cases there is no legal/functional difference. It's simply that some businesses think calling employees "associates" sounds better.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 14, 2015 at 15:34

3 Answers 3


According to the OED, employee does indeed mean "a person employed for wages."

Associate could have several meanings and origins; personally, I suspect the original motivation was to find an alternative to employee which sounded more impressive and designed to make the employee feel more important.

However, more technically, associate could have several relevant original meanings:

OED 1.A.1 Joined in companionship, function, or dignity.

3.A.3 United in the same group or category, allied; concomitant.

B.B n. [the adj. used absolutely.]

1.B.1 One who is united to another by community of interest, and shares with him in enterprise, business, or action; a partner, comrade, companion.

3.B.3 One who shares an office or position of authority with another; a colleague, coadjutor. spec. An officer of the Superior Courts of Common Law in England, ‘whose duties are to superintend the entering of causes, to attend sittings at nisi prius, and there receive and enter verdicts,’ etc. (Warton.)

4.B.4 One who is frequently in company with another, on terms of social equality and intimacy; an intimate acquaintance, companion, mate.

5.B.5 One who belongs to an association or institution in a subordinate degree of membership, without the honours and privileges of a full member or ‘Fellow.’

The origin of the now-common associate could be descended etymologically from a combination of people in frequent company, sharing common interest, and belonging to an institution in a subordinated capacity.

  • 2
    While the term may derived from the meanings you list, it's rare that any of them is an accurate description of the employees' relationship. The use by businesses is a form of double-speak, whose intent is as you described in your second paragraph.
    – Barmar
    Dec 16, 2014 at 20:12

I believe the term employee is the technical term referring to an individual that is on company X's payroll. Associate is a "customer facing" term used to refer to an individual that is associated with the company and can assist the customer in some way. This is highlighted by the fact that some companies have associates who are not technically employees but rather vendors, contractors and other contingent staff.

  • The legal term for vendors, contractors, etc. as opposed to employees is independent contractor. The IRS, in particular, has spilled a vast amount of ink on the subject of distinguishing employees from independent contractors: irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/…
    – Heath
    Oct 13, 2015 at 21:39

Companies use the word Associate in order to create psychological distance between Management and Employee. Employers don't want their staff getting to comfortable with the firm. Makes it easier to fire them.

  • 3
    Interesting idea. Any evidence of this?
    – herisson
    Oct 13, 2015 at 20:51
  • 2
    I'd have argued the opposite, that calling someone your "Associate" would be attempting to make them feel more part of the company as it implies a more equal relationship than "employee"- thus hopefully creating company loyalty. Dec 14, 2015 at 15:13

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.