Does HR stand for ‘horrible riting?’ (Guest commentary)

Legal requirements, inherited jargon and mandatory acronyms make clarity nearly impossible

As a communications consultant and seminar leader, I’ve had a lot of bad days. I’ve had months of work spiked over lunch by an insecure manager on a massive ego trip.

I’ve been driven to drink (an admittedly short ride) by seminar attendees with their gory stories of bloody battles with lawyers and accountants.

I’ve had the kind of days when I wanted to chuck it all and go back to bartending — where at least when someone is a jerk, you have the satisfaction of throwing him through a window.

But even on the blackest days, when all hope abandons me, one thought has always kept me going: At least I’m not in human resources. The worst day in corporate communications is a wine and cheese party compared to the best day in HR.

Although I’ve never actually worked in HR, I know it must be a horrible place, based on the written communications they spew out into the workforce. Their words and phrases and stilted prose infect otherwise healthy employee publications; their acronyms and jargon bring good, clear communication to a grinding halt; and, since everybody has to read HR stuff, and nobody differentiates between HR and corporate communications, they taint everything we try to do.

Now, I realize that it’s not all their fault. HR people are so hamstrung by legal requirements, inherited jargon and mandatory acronyms that it’s almost impossible to write a clear sentence.

That said, however, there is some writing coming out of HR that there is just no excuse for. And every once in a while, out of either a professional sense of obligation or a deeply buried masochistic kink, I go out of my way to find HR writing — if only to prove that it’s as bad as it ever was. It is.

Recently I sucked it up and read a bunch of HR stories. Three stories into it, I realized, if anything, they are getting worse. There is more jargon, more acronyms, more fat, more constipated prose and less clarity than ever. In the very first employee publication I picked up, I found a story from the HR department that featured this opening paragraph:

“A key function of the Associate Safety and Business Continuity Program (ASBCP) is the emergency preparedness program, which institutes a carefully planned and consistent response to an unplanned incident or event that poses a threat to associates, company sites or company assets.”

In the interest of good writing, let’s take this sentence apart. It’s got so much fat, I’m tempted to think HR writers get paid by the letter. First, why does every function have to be key? Using the word once wouldn’t be so bad, but they went on to list six or seven more program functions and they were all key. I know why this happens: As soon as they use key once, they have to keep using it. Because if they use it a couple of times, the first time they don’t use it, they might as well say, “And, one of the things the new program does that really isn’t all that terribly important is…”

So, everything becomes key and the word loses all meaning. But let’s keep reading. Of course, they have to turn the program into an acronym. That’s the first thing they teach you at HR writing school: Everything is an acronym.

I once overheard two HR types talking to each other. The first one said, “DYWTGTL?” And the second one said, “NTIBATFST.” At first, I thought they were discussing two new key programs. But it turns out that the first one said, “Do you want to go to lunch?” The reply: “No thanks, I brought a tuna fish sandwich today.”

To me, the only reason to turn something into an acronym is if the acronym itself makes sense to say out loud, like CREEP (Committee To Re-elect the President).

Try saying this one out loud: ASBCP. Better yet, imagine employees trying to say it. People are going to be getting spit baths left and right. And the story only gets worse. Let’s go through it word for word (which is what a good editor should have done): Emergency preparedness program? Preparedness doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, does it? And why have the words “which institutes” in there at all? What’s the matter with “is the emergency program, a carefully planned…”

Of course, you really don’t need carefully in there, either. The road to bad writing is paved with adverbs, and this is a pretty good example of that. Do we really need to know it was “carefully” planned? If they don’t say it, are we going to assume it was thrown together at three in the morning after an all-night hash party?

And do we need the word consistent? If it’s carefully planned (or even just planned, period), wouldn’t that imply consistency? And why do you need the word incident and the word event? Wouldn’t one do?

Or, failing that, could you at least make sure the communication department’s name isn’t on the document?

Steve Crescenzo is a Chicago-based communications consultant. He can be reached at [email protected].

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