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Colborn’s Corner – What did you say?


Quentin ColbornFollowing his last column in which Quentin looked at the way we might use legislation to make ourselves seem more important, Quentin asks whether we complicate things too much for managers and employees.

As I sit to write this article I’m reflecting on a fascinating evening I have just spent with a friend and her husband who wanted some advice on a proposed employment contract. Having been employed by the business for about four years, the employers have now decided she should have a ‘proper’ contract of employment. Now when I write a contract or handbook or similar contractual document I keep in mind that it needs to be readable and understandable to the average employee.

The contract I was reviewing was nothing if not thorough – all 15 pages of it, all for a middle management level role. It addressed such matters as restrictive covenants, intellectual property rights and the fact that the employee could be summarily dismissed for sickness absence (an interesting concept in the light of the Statutory Disciplinary procedures!). What the document singularly failed to do was to express itself in terms that the reader could understand. Two lovely examples come to mind:

  • “References to any enactment shall be construed as references of such enactment as from time to time re-enacted and to any previous enactment consolidated therein and to any regulation or order made thereunder.”
  • “Unless otherwise stated all references to clauses, paragraphs and Schedules in this Agreement are references to clauses, paragraphs in and of Schedules to this Agreement.”
  • I think the first quote is saying “when we refer to the law and that law is changed we are then referring to the new law.”

    The second clause is saying “When we are referring to clauses in an agreement, it’s this agreement we are referring to.” Some might say that’s stating the obvious!

    “How often do we focus on getting the words so right that we lose sight of the reader and what we want them to take from the document?”

    I suspect this agreement was drafted by a solicitor with little concept of employment law in the real world. However to be fair to solicitors, do we ever write like this as HR practitioners? How often do we focus on getting the words so right that we lose sight of the reader and what we want them to take from the document?

    In my work I review contracts and handbooks from all sorts of employers from small, family-run business to much larger organisations. While there is variation in quality, the trend is frequently for a low level of presentation that an external marketeer would not countenance if they were marketing a company product or service. So why do we allow it in employment documentation? It’s easy to answer that employment legislation is complex and we have to be clear about employment terms if we are to defend the employer if necessary. While that is no doubt true, does it automatically mean that documents are unintelligible?

    One interesting tool I have recently discovered is the Fog Index, a methodology of calculating the readability of documents. On a simple level, the index looks at the complexity of a document in terms of number of three syllable words, length of sentences and paragraph structure. The index produced by the calculation relates to the number of years education required to be able to understand the passage. Typically a copy of The Sun apparently produces a Fog index of 10, while a copy of The Times comes out at about 15, with The Daily Telegraph a point or two ahead. So when one handbook I looked at came out with a Fog Index of around 35 I knew I was in extremely muddy water!

    So what does all this mean to us? I would say take an impartial view of employment documentation – can it be improved? Why not be radical and ask someone from outside HR to review a handbook and see if they can improve on the wording – then let the challenge be to tie the law into what’s readable, and not the other way round!

    Let’s have your examples of gobbledegook in HR documentation. There will be the prize of a bottle of champagne for the worst example of wording you can come up with!

    Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who works with organisations to review their contractual approach to employment and works with clients to ensure their documentation both keeps in line with the law and business requirements. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via [email protected]

    One Response

    1. Gobbledegook
      I’ve got an example of a sentence in a Maternity Policy I came across recently, which I thought would have a good chance of winning a bottle of champagne… fingers crossed !

      “If you resign because you do not intend to return to work after maternity leave, but later you wish to return by the date on which you would otherwise have been due to return following your full entitlement to maternity leave because of a radical change in circumstances such as the child’s still birth, you have no absolute right to return but may be allowed to do so and, if at all possible, in accordance with paragraph XXX.”

      Kind regards

      Jill Little

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