Why do we write policies like this?

Dear friends,

Maybe you understand this – I don’t. Here is the opening paragraph to a prototype Employee Handbook, provided to free for all on the SHRM website. It reminds me of something from the Broadway spoof of corporate America, “How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying).” It was provided to SHRM by a law firm. Here goes:

Whether you have just joined our staff or have been at XYZ for a while, we are confident that you will find our company a dynamic and rewarding place in which to work and we look forward to a productive and successful association. We consider the employees of XYZ to be one of its most valuable resources. This manual has been written to serve as the guide for the employer/employee relationship.

WHY do we write employee communications in such a stilted, demeaning way? Does anyone talk like this? For one thing, “the employees of XYZ” cannot be “one of its most valuable resources.” “A dynamic and rewarding place in which to work” is one of those say-nothing, just-had-to-fill-the-space phrases that knock you over the head with their emptiness. You should see the rest of the manual! Do you know why otherwise smart people who can write killer marketing materials and compelling copy for the media and other audiences, almost always write this vapid crizzap when writing for employees?

Liz Ryan

Workplace Expert: Career Advisor, Speaker, Author, HR pundit; Yahoo! Hotjobs Networking Expert; BusinessWeek Columnist

Somewhere along the line, the general public has bought into the idea that verbal obfuscation is somehow synonymous with eminent prerogative and meritorious intelligence. (trans: If it’s hard to understand, it must be official or written by someone very smart 🙂 Along the same lines, a 500 page manual is somehow more valuable that a 10 page flyer (even if they contain essentially the same information)

As part of a process re-engineering initiative that I led, we went after documentation that had a low “signal to noise ratio” and had people rewrite them using the simplest wording possible (while maintaining the meaning, of course). In one case, we had a 50+ page manual reduced to a 3/4 page checklist. Even our legal department bought into the idea and reduced a huge software support agreement to a single page written in plain english instead of “legalese”.

I’m sure that if someone took a critical look at most of these “on boarding” manuals, most of them would reduce to a single page welcome letter with a bullet list of expected conduct.

Imagine the energy, fuels, time and resources that could be saved by removing all of the communication of “non-information”.

While I have a great respect for wordsmiths and authors, Corporate communications generally aren’t the place to flex your literary muscles. This is especially true in the age of globalization. Many people reading your memos and manuals may not be fluent in the language. Using flowery language and less common words will certainly lead to misinterpretation.

Check out the Campaign for Plain English: http://www.campaignforplainenglish.com/