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Why HR should embrace plain language communications

Avoiding jargon, buzzwords and legalese

By Brian Kreissl 

I have blogged a few times about employee communications and how we in the HR profession seem to have a penchant for buzzwords and catchphrases. There’s no question HR, like other functions, can be guilty of confusing other business professionals, line managers, executives and rank-and-file employees with specific terms of art from our profession. 

We also aren’t above being overly wordy at times or using $5 words when simple ones would do. While most HR practitioners are pretty sophisticated communicators, that isn’t necessarily always the case for some of the employees, job candidates and other stakeholders we communicate with. 

It is necessary to consider the audience when communicating to others. But even when people are highly educated and sophisticated, they don’t always have the time or the attention span to read a lengthy piece of prose with unnecessary details and repetitive content. That is particularly true these days when people are used to consuming content in bite-sized articles, texts, tweets and videos. 

Language and literacy challenges 

In spite of the fact that my philosophy is communications should aim to inform rather than confuse, I am occasionally guilty of being verbose or using big words just to sound sophisticated. In fact, I have probably included a few examples of that in this very post, although I normally try to avoid doing so. 

We shouldn’t forget that others don’t share our professional backgrounds and may not necessarily have the same level of education or fluency in English. We live in an increasingly multicultural society with people from all corners of the globe. And according to the Canadian Literacy and Learning Network, 42 per cent of Canadian adults between 16 and 65 have low levels of literacy. 

Business jargon and buzzwords 

People tend to get annoyed with certain overused buzzwords and shibboleths (are you getting the irony here?) from the worlds of business, technology and various professions. For example, some of the expressions I personally find annoying are “level-setting,” “when the rubber hits the road,” “bleeding edge,” “scalable,” “ecosystem,” “circle back,” “synergy,” “paradigm shift” and “taking it offline.” 

Even if people know exactly what those terms mean in the context they’re being used, they can be annoying and difficult to decipher, especially when several of them are strung together. For example, an HR software vendor might refer to their “scalable, bleeding-edge, strategic HCM software solution that leverages synergies through cloud-based SaaS technologies to deliver out-of-the-box integration with ERP applications and superior analytics and reporting capabilities.” 

Believe it or not, I actually made that up, but doesn’t that just sound like the kind of gobbledygook a technology company would use in its marketing? Consulting firms seem to be equally guilty of this sort of thing. 

Latin terminology and archaic legal language 

People frequently accuse lawyers of using words and phrases designed to deliberately confuse non-lawyers in an attempt to make the law less accessible to ordinary folks. The use of Latin terminology (such as inter alia, prima facie, ipso facto, quid pro quo and res ipsa loquitur) and archaic language (including words such as witnesseth, hereinbefore, howsoever, aforesaid and heretobefore) are particularly frowned upon. 

However, many people don’t realize there is a movement within the legal profession itself to banish such legalese in favour of plain language and writing. I remember one lawyer and part-time university instructor in particular who argued that only the worst lawyers these days use a significant amount of Latin phraseology in their communications. 

A fair number of lawyers purchase and subscribe to Carswell’s labour and employment law publications for HR practitioners because they appreciate the readability and user-friendliness of those publications. And many of our legal publications have embraced a more plain language style. Many lawyers themselves prefer not to read overly lengthy or complex texts replete with legalese and $5 words. 

HR practitioners, labour relations professionals and employment lawyers who draft legal and quasi-legal documents such as contracts, letters, policies, forms, handbooks and other types of employee communications may find the second edition of A Plain Language Handbook for Legal Writers, by Christine Mowat, to be a valuable resource. In fact, any professional who wants to make her writing clearer and more concise would find this new book to be beneficial and interesting.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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2 Comments
  • RE: Why HR should embrace plain language communications
    Wednesday, February 24, 2016 6:22:00 AM by Brian Kreissl
    While I do occasionally refer to an organization's people as its "human resources," this blog post uses that term to refer to the function or profession. I didn't coin the phrase, and since this blog is for HR practitioners we would tend to want to use the terminology that 99% of the people in the profession actually use. If I call it "personnel" that's old school, and if I call it "human capital management" that's a little too slick and just sounds like consultant-speak.