Good writing skills are valuable in almost any profession. We engage in all kinds of written communication in the workplace, and often the reputation of our business rests on being able to convey a clear message. Think about the last time you received a poorly written email and spent time trying to decipher what the writer was asking. It was probably quite frustrating. I like to think of punctuation as the road signs that tell us how to navigate words and sentences. When a comma, or apostrophe show’s up in the wrong place, it’s like a stop sign in the middle of, the freeway (See what I did there?). We come to a screeching halt and run the risk of a collision with an unsuspecting verb or adjective.
As HR professionals, we often find ourselves drafting policies, sending out email, taking investigation notes, writing warnings and proofing reviews. Poor writing in any of these areas can create confusion and make it difficult to figure out how to proceed with employment decisions. Here are some tips to keep bad writing from becoming a problem for you.
I is an English major!
“I wasn’t an English major like you, so I can’t write well. Why don’t we just have you write that policy?”
I have heard this countless times during my career. Some people have this assumption that good writing skills are only attainable for a select few who earn English degrees by climbing a pile of books while dodging misplaced apostrophes. My parents both worked as computer programmers for the space program, and they could both write a decent sentence. They were proof that writing is not a skill accessible only to those with a BA in English. If my rocket scientist parents can write well, certainly those in a variety of professions can craft an easy-to-understand sentence.
Being a good writer does not necessarily mean you will be the next Shakespeare. Just as it is important to have a grasp of basic math even if you are not working as an accountant, writing is important even if you are not a professional writer. If you are doubting the importance of knowing how to use punctuation, read up on the Canadian case involving disputed commas in a contract.
Most of the workplace writing we do is basic. There is no need for flowery language, so do not worry about writing a meal break policy that rivals the playfulness of a Jane Austen novel. Unless Elizabeth Bennett is working at your company, there is no need to sound like that.
Focus on knowing the basics, such as when to use your or you’re, and keep your writing clear and simple. Do not hesitate to consult the experts. I like to keep reference books on hand, and I have some reference sites bookmarked on my computer. Some of my favorites include Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) and Grammar Girl.
Jargon & fancy phrases
I think it is fitting that the thesaurus on my computer suggests gobbledygook as a synonym for jargon. Unless you are writing for people in your own industry, avoid jargon or other fancy phrases that can weigh down your writing.
In HR, our audience is usually employees in a variety of jobs, so there is no need to let gobbledygook run amok in your HR communication. We throw a lot of technical terminology around in HR, and acronyms are a normal part of the language (e.g. FMLA, CFRA, HIPPA, ERISA, ACA). For your non-HR audience, this may mean spelling out Family and Medical Leave Act and taking the time to write explanations of phrases like serious medical condition and leave entitlement.
First drafts are not supposed to be great masterpieces. Even the best writers often have to go through and revise their work. It is difficult to be your own editor. After all, you know exactly what you want to say, so you may not catch things that are confusing or unclear. Have someone else read your work before you send it out. When drafting an HR policy, include a reader outside of HR to make sure the policy is clear and free of any jargon that might be confusing to your non-HR readers.
Even after all the editing and proofreading, mistakes sometimes have a way of working their way into your published writing. Do not be hard on yourself if this happens. Issue a correction or make a quick edit if it’s online, and move on. The key is to take the time to write clear sentences and to have someone proofread your work to minimize the chance of errors. It’s not rocket science.