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USE WRITING AS A TOOL, DON’T BE ONE

In his recent article, “Small Firms, Big Lawyers: 20 Ways to Write Like a Tool”, Jay Shepherd laid bare lawyers’ various writing offences. I saw too much of myself in his list and also saw examples of errors commonly made by employers when communicating in writing with employees.
 
Even with all the technology at our disposal, the written word is still our primary mode of communication. It is important for us all – employers included – to write in a way that gets our message across without confusing or offending readers.
 
Like lawyers, I see employers commit writing offences time after time. As we start off the new year, perhaps one way for employers to work on improving their employee relations is to assess, and refine, their writing style.
 
Shepherd’s number one example of how lawyers tend to “write like a tool” is their use of the phrase “pursuant to”. He says, and I agree, that “no real person would ever say ‘pursuant to’ in conversation.”
 
What he’s getting at is lawyers’ tendency to speak in a complicated manner when simplicity would suffice. Employers could take a useful lesson from this example.
 
Write the way you would speak. Even better, write the way you would speak in order to have your message understood by your employees. Ditch “pursuant to” and “due to” and “in the event that” and “notwithstanding” and such other monstrosities (as Shepherd calls them).
 
Say what you mean, say it simply, and say it briefly. Is that so difficult? You may think you are smarter than your employees (you may be wrong about that) but you don’t have to prove it with every bulletin.
 
The second area in which employers could use some improvement is dropping the “us versus them” mentality. I have seen many written communications in which employees are seemingly viewed as little more than a necessary evil.
 
This attitude can become institutionalized and can plant the seeds for discontent, confrontation and, eventually, a telephone call to a local union organizer. It has been my experience, over a long period of time, that employees tend to seek union representation when a manager is perceived as “treating people like dirt”.
 
So, when it comes to written communications to staff, eliminate the “us versus them” tone. You’re all in this thing together so make everyone’s lives more enjoyable by acting like it.
 
A third way to improve communications with employees is to get rid of mealy mouthed phrases such as “it has been decided”. That’s a well-entrenched corporate strategy for passing the buck but everybody sees through it.
 
An example of that phrase in use would be a memorandum from human resources stating, “It has been decided that the plant will shut down on Monday for 2 weeks and all employees will be laid off without pay for that period”. As an alternative, try “There will be a 2 week, unpaid shutdown, starting Monday.”
 
Just say what needs to be said, don’t candy-coat it, and don’t waste space implying that somebody else made the decision.
 
A fourth recommendation I have for employers is stop trying to sound like lawyers! As Shepherd points out, most lawyers write like “tools” to begin with so why would anyone want to sound like us?
 
This flows from my earlier point about simplifying your chosen language. If one word will get the job done, don’t use five. Eliminate duplicative phrases such as “last and final” and repetitive content such as “two (2) weeks”, and elitist-sounding phrases such as “comprised of” (which is grammatically incorrect to begin with).
 
If lawyers can’t even use legal lingo properly, what hope does anyone else have? Save yourself the embarrassment of misstating your point, simplify your wording, and say what you mean.
 
Writing a column (for ten years or so, now) – which is limited to about 500 words each week – to cover sometimes complicated topics has taught me a few tricks.
 
My first rule is to try and keep my sentences short and avoid compound sentences. That means one thought or idea per sentence. Periods and question marks and exclamation points are in unlimited supply, so why bother economizing by jamming two sentences into one?
 
Second, if there is a simple or plain word which will do the trick, I will try to use it. I try to avoid complicated words like “notwithstanding” and “aforementioned” and “heretofore” (what the heck does that mean, anyway?) and stick with simple words or phrases.
 
Third, I try to limit myself to two sentences per paragraph. My theory is “the longer the paragraph, the less likely it is that anyone will read it”.
 
There are, of course, effective writing guides out there and I’m sure they would be worth reading. But, if you’ve only got time to read 500 words or so, perhaps starting with these ideas will help you avoid being viewed by your employees as a “tool”.
 
Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit www.smithsonlaw.ca. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.