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Do we write for our audience or for ourselves?

This morning I was approached by a friend of a friend to help him out with a HR query he had.  Often, I’m asked the kind of “can they do that?” type questions that so often arise when an employer wants to make a change or do something that affects the employee.  Inevitably, these questions and suspicions arise when an employee isn’t quite sure of the employer’s agenda and the employer hasn’t (at least in some cases) taken the time to explain things properly.

In this particular case, it was less to do with the change the employer wanted to make and more to do with the documentation.  This employee had been asked to sign a restrictive covenant which related to the activities the employer wanted to be able to prevent him from doing after his employment with the company ceased.

So far, so good.  The employee is clear on why the employer wants him to sign it – to protect their business.  However, what he’s not clear on is what the document actually means.  It’s been drafted by employment lawyers, as you would expect for a legal document that the employer hopes to be able to legally enforce, but the biggest problem is that the employee just doesn’t understand it.  He has no intention, and quite rightly so, of signing a document he doesn’t understand.

I’ve gone through it with him and explained in in plain English but it does beg the question of why it couldn’t have been written that way in the first place.  I appreciate that the wording has specific legal significance but why couldn’t it also be explained in easy to understand terms?  People don’t talk about “soliciting” or “enticing” customers or employees away.  They do talk about “poaching” or “stealing” so why couldn’t these commonly understood words also be used together with the correct legal terms?

Documents like these do not do HR any favours.  They’re seen as unclear, difficult to understand and somehow distant from the real world.  That interpretation extends to HR generally so it is any wonder that employees and businesses can be reluctant to engage with us if we’re presenting them with information they don’t understand?  It’s not enough for us to understand the information – we should be writing for our audiences and not for ourselves.

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