At NationsBank Corp., there are no employees. But there are plenty of associates, about 100,000 of them.

Since 1981, the Charlotte, N.C., banking company has used the term "associate" to describe all workers, from the teller to the chief executive officer.

"The word signifies the strong sense of teamwork that built within the company," said Kim Haines, a senior vice president for work and family programs at NationsBank. "We are all in this together."

While few financial services companies refer to their workers as associates or any other special designation, the practice is more commonplace in the retail industry. Wal-Mart, for example, has called its employees associates, since the first store opened in Rogers, Ark., in 1962.

"The concept behind it is to differentiate a worker from being one of the masses of people," says Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting. "It gives a sense of ownership."

And Mr. Wendel says that the move is good business for the bank.

"NationsBank is a hard-nosed bank," he says. "They are profit-driven and by no sense of the word a cupcake employer. It's all part of the effort to make workers happier, so they will be more productive, which is an enlightened form of self-interest."

But Mr. Wendel points out that associate is only a word and the word can become a joke unless it's backed up with a host of programs designed to make workers feel enfranchised.

"Some companies feel that it's enough to use the word," said Jeffrey A. Goldberg, an organizational psychologist. "But that only raises expectations on the part of the employees that are not being met by management."

But consultants like Mr. Wendel think that NationsBank has met expectations with a slew of programs that make workers feel they work for a quality employee.

Meanwhile, at First Union Corp., NationsBank's hometown rival, employees are just employees. But not to be outdone by NationsBank, First Union does refer to its departments as "teams."

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