Monthly Archives: September 2014

Why Sexual Harassment Continues to Plague the Workplace

With all the laws and lawsuits, why is sexual harassment still an issue at work?  Everyone has sat through ongoing training.  Everyone understands the rules.  Yet here I am in HR still dealing with this misconduct.  I could dwell on the sorry state of humanity; rather, I aim to pinpoint why this remains a problem.

Training and the law continue to put the onus on the complainant.  Official training and the law state that if you’re being sexually harassed, you should tell the harasser that you don’t like being harassed and would like the harasser to stop.  Okay.  Does anyone else understand how out of touch with reality this advice is?  So let’s say your male boss is harassing you.  Since you were probably raised in a social construct in which men of a certain age consider sexual harassment a form of flirtation, you will likely try to forgive and forge ahead.  I’ve heard many educated women react in this manner. They like and need their jobs.  Furthermore, they don’t want any trouble and certainly don’t want any negative attention.  Most mature people will put up with a whole lot before inviting negative attention.  And since it’s impossible to conduct a thorough investigation without compromising confidentiality, thereby piling on negative attention, most great employees will clam up and find another job.  Not only won’t they officially complain, they won’t say anything to the harasser’s face either.  However, the second the harasser turns around, they’ll roll their eyes and make a gagging noise.  I understand.  Why would anyone bother trying to reason with an unreasonable person?  My definition of unreasonable would be someone who continues to sexually harass others at work.  This person is clearly daft without a whiff of self awareness.   In short, creeps generally don’t know they’re creepy, and there’s no telling them otherwise.

Anything having to do with “sex” is still taboo in the U.S.A.  I don’t know how many centuries will have to pass before we climb out from under the Puritans’ shadow.   This history has made it difficult for us as a society to deal with some truly degenerate behavior.  So, for years, sexual harassment went on without anyone wanting to talk about it.  It just wasn’t something you discussed—especially at work.

It’s not always about sex.  In many cases, it’s about power.  This isn’t discussed in most training and needs to be.  The worst offenses—quid pro quo sexual harassment—is all about power.  Let’s acknowledge that some in power shouldn’t be in power.  Rather than using their ability to make important organization-building decisions, they yield it like a javelin to harm others.

There should be stronger consequences for egregious sexual harassment.  For the worst sexual harassers, they generally face lawsuits and termination.  This isn’t enough in my opinion.  If you have wielded your power at work to gain sexual favors, you are a criminal.  And you should be arrested.  I know some will disagree with me, but I have seen behavior that would make your skin crawl, behavior that goes beyond a few dirty jokes gone wrong.  No one should be able to get away with this.  What happens, though, is that harassers continue employment at another company, and probably another company after that, where they’re free to sexually harass a fresh group of employees.

Human Resources should have extensive and mandatory training on how to address sexual harassment.  Assuming the company has a clear zero-tolerance policy, HR needs to know exactly how to investigate harassment and cannot shy away from sending a clear message to all employees that it will not be tolerated.  If employees know the company is consistent in its dealings with sexual harassment, they will be less likely to harass and more likely to come forward should it occur.

 

 

 

 

 

What Your Business Writing Says About You

When we write emails or memos, we might not understand that we are telling people who we really are.  Certain characteristics (good and bad) show clearly in our prose.  At the most basic level, consider those emails that come across as smug and demanding.  We don’t excuse these emails as stylistic writing errors.  Rather, we decide the sender is a smug and demanding person.

As an example, I’ll use something I received last week, a real recommendation letter (with names and places changed), breaking up each sentence and analyzing the prose for the character traits revealed:

In the last two years that I have worked for Keys Unlimited, I have had a front row seat to this operation and during this entire time, I have had the privilege of working with and for the Marketing Director, Sen Sational.   

I won’t bother analyzing the dodgy ethics of having a subordinate writing a recommendation letter.   Let’s instead tear apart the writer’s prose.  Clearly, the person has a hard time reigning in his thoughts.  I say this because the sentence is cluttered with unnecessary filler words and phrases.  Also, the person isn’t an original thinker with his cliché, “front row seat.”  The cliché indicates the person is a follower, since he’s watching rather than working aside his subject.   The writer contradicts this cliché with his “working with and for” later on.  Oh, let’s not forget he repeats himself (I have had, I have had).

Over the course of my adult working life (30 plus years), I have worked for quite an assortment of different “leaders,” but hands down, Sen has proved to be head and shoulders above the rest.

So, since it’s only his adult working life, his years as a paper boy don’t count?  Okay, that’s me being snide, but this person clearly likes to exaggerate matters.  Consequently, he comes across as insincere.   He’d be the guy to whom you’d want to say, “Who cares?”  I mean, really, do we care how long he’s been a working adult?  Also, he’s redundant.  Choose one, buddy.  Assortment or different.  You don’t get both.  And then we get the double-down with two clichés in one clause:  “hands down” and “head and shoulders above the rest.”  Egads.

Sen has been here from the beginning and has been the driving force behind this highly successful company.

Again, he relies on a cliché:  “driving force.”  He’s also sort of passive with his use of the adverb “highly.”  It’s always the passive sorts who rely on weak adverbs to heighten their point rather than relying on crisp syntax and strong verbs.

In a nutshell, she is Keys Unlimited.

Thank you for yet another cliché.  When someone writes a short sentence and tells you it’s a short sentence by adding a phrase like “in a nutshell,” you know you have someone who will struggle to communicate efficiently.  They won’t tell you the simplest things in the simplest ways.  Also, we have another indication of an exaggerator.  Exaggerators avoid facts.  Exaggerators dismiss data and hide behind hyperbole.

She is passionate about the program, passionate about her staff and their wellbeing and success, and most importantly, passionate about the people we have the privilege of serving, the Keys Unlimited customers.   

I doubt anyone’s as “passionate” as the guy writing this letter.  When you repeatedly use a describer, it generally means you value this characteristic because you think you have this characteristic.  This passionate guy has again shown his need for unnecessary words, as in “and their” when he could have just used an apostrophe after “staff.”  This again shows a lack of efficiency.

With very few exceptions, she knows our customers by name and will frequently interact with them and encourage them whenever she might encounter them at our store or out in the field.

Again, this is wordy and confusing, which suggests that the writer is confused.  Why bother with “very few exceptions”?  And what does he mean by “the field”?  For all we know, it’s an actual cornfield next to the store.

Sen has done a masterful job of maintaining and managing the fast pace of this store to help guide her staff to maintain high levels of success.

The writer likes the letter “m.”  Masterful.  Maintaining.  Managing.  You might have noticed that specific examples are avoided, which suggests the writer is an abstract person out of touch with reality.

Meanwhile, she diligently focuses on the well-being of her staff with constant communication and guidance, striving to create an environment that is both highly productive and yet pleasant and friendly at the same time.

Throughout the rambling letter (suggesting an unfocused character), we are lambasted with filler words that serve to postpone a redundant and hyperbolic anthem.  Notice the use of “both” and “at the same time.”

Therefore, I highly recommend and vouch for Sen Sational to work at your company. 

With the schoolhouse use of “therefore” to conclude this letter, it suggests someone who is stuck in yesteryear.  And do I need to say more about the way the writer likes to say things twice when once will do?  Recommend and vouch.  This suggests an indecisive person who cannot make up his mind on something as simple as diction.

***

Okay, that was rough, I know.  I dare you to comb through your own writing.  What does it say about you?  My own writing probably revealed that I’m a snarky blogger with an English degree.  If I break down my other writing, I’m sure I’ll find other unappealing traits but hopefully some appealing ones, too.  It’s interesting that we business folk think it’s all about the content of our writing when it’s also about the way we write.

What’s unfortunate is that the writer of the example above might not have any of these undesirable characteristics.  It might be that he simply doesn’t know how to write, which underscores my point that even those in business need to write well. 2014-09-10 12 13 41_resized

 

 

 

Lean and Mean Business Writing

I’ve met many who consider themselves excellent writers.  They send emails as long as e-books and like to add what they consider to be flourish and flare.  Here’s the hard truth—no one has time to read those seven-page emails or overly detailed memos.  So whatever message you’re trying to convey is lost.

Think of it like this—every word, phrase or sentence must have a reason to live in your text.  If it’s useless, delete it.  You have that power as a writer.

What words tend to be useless?  Let’s examine the email below.

Chris:

 Good morning.  I hope you’re doing great today and had a nice weekend.  I know it was short for me, what with the bear of a project we have due on Friday—you, I’m sure, are feeling the same sense of urgency.  So, I wanted to update you on a few things.  I ended up deciding on a Crystal Report for the data on the environmental impact—and a simple PowerPoint to give visuals for the results and analysis.  I can’t say I’m completely happy with all that resulted, but it is what is, right?  Anyway, it took a couple of hours on Sunday, and I was able to make a roast afterward.  Right now, I’m working on the spreadsheet, using the formula we agreed on last week at our meeting at Olive Garden.  Boy, I could use a breadstick right about now!  Anyway, as I was saying, I’m working on the spreadsheet and should have it done by Tuesday late afternoon, god willing.  I plan on emailing Rose and Mark today to get updates on their progress.  We still haven’t decided who will present this information, but I was wondering if you should present the first half and Mark should present the second…what do you think?  We all believe you have the best presentation skills and will be able to sell our ideas.  Anyway, I’m excited to get this project finished and off my desk this week.  Aren’t you?  Hope you have a great and productive day.  Back to work!  Take care! 

 You’ve probably recognized several sentences and phrases that can be cut, but let’s break it down:

Redundancies:  Find everything in this email said twice or more in different ways.

  • “Good morning.  I hope you’re doing great today and had a nice weekend.”  (One of these would do)
  • “Anyway, as I was saying, I’m working on the spreadsheet” (“As I was saying” is an admission of redundancy)
  • “…get this project finished and off my desk” (Choose “finished” or “off my desk”)

 Unnecessary Filler & Fluff: 

  • “I wanted to update you on a few things” (use “Update This Week’s Project” as a subject line)
  • “But it is what it is, right?” (segue into the next sentence instead)
  • “…and I was able to make a roast afterward” (who cares?)
  • “…at Olive Garden” (who cares?)
  • “Boy, I could use a breadstick right about now!” (who cares?)
  • “…god willing” (huh?)

Wordy and Meandering Sentences or Phrases: 

  •  Change wordy phrases like “project we have due on Friday” to “the project due Friday.”
  • Instead of writing “a few things,” launch into the actual subject matter.
  • Instead of writing “the data on the environmental impact,” write “the environmental impact data.”  Allowing your describing words or phrases to come before what they describe will eliminate many unneeded words.
  • Replace phrases like “have it done” with stronger single words like “finished.”
  • Avoid unnecessary detail like “plan on emailing.”  Use “will contact” instead.
  • Replace wordy sentence introductions like “We still haven’t decided” to “As far as.”

 Now, I’ll re-write without redundancies and unnecessary filler and fluff.  I will also trim or replace any wordy and meandering sentences:

 Good morning, Chris:

 I wanted to update you on the project due Friday.  I chose a Crystal Report for the environmental impact data and a PowerPoint for results and analysis.  Today, I’m using the formula we discussed last week to complete the spreadsheet, which I should finish by late Tuesday afternoon.  I will contact Rose and Mark later today to discuss their progress. 

 As far as who will present the information, we were hoping you would present the first half and Mark the second.  What do you think? 

 Thank you.  

My guess is that you were actually relieved to read the second version and were able to clearly understand the message.  Also, notice how I created two paragraphs even though the email is shorter.  Paragraphs help us retain and understand information.  They behave like a big breath between thoughts.  Also, ending on a question will likely get the writer a quick response.  Burying questions confuses the reader.

Striving to have lean and mean business writing will not only help you in your current career, it will make you a viable candidate in the future.

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Clarity Above All Else—Seven Tips to Clear Up Your Business Writing

Convoluted writing leads to convoluted thoughts.  Since we want strong ideas and directives that are executable, we need clear writing.  The six tips below should help you do this.

1. Use the best words and phrases, not the longest or fanciest

The best word is likely the shorter word.  Rather than trying to sound as if you are intelligent, be intelligent.

Unclear.  In the condition of revolutionary lessening in the initial month in the first quarter of the year depicted on marketing spreadsheets and accounting department outcomes, the anticipated edifice will likely transpire toward deferment for a solitary 12-month cycle.

Clear.  If January’s data shows a decrease in casino revenue, we will postpone the building project for a year.

2. Purge your text of any unneeded words, phrases or sentences

So often, we clutter our message with filler.   Your first drafts typically feature small unnecessary words, or you take too long to get to the point.

Unclear.  The budget spreadsheets presented at the end of the third quarter of this calendar year represent the year-to-date expenditures and the budgetary items that need adjustment or analysis.  For budget meetings in October, every department will first meet with the finance department to discuss any changes they would like to make at this time.  If these suggested changes can be supported or accommodated by existing funds, then each department’s budget will be revised accordingly.

Clear. This year’s third quarter budget spreadsheets represent year-to-date expenditures.  Departments will meet with finance in October to discuss necessary adjustments.  Revisions supported by existing funds will be finalized in November.

3. Avoid passive voice, and take action now

In the middle of our paragraphs, passive voice reads like overcooked noodles.  It sags and muddles who is doing what.  In business writing, it is a common way to avoid accountability, as you can see in the second example below.

Passive.  The budget was developed by the director of Human Resources.

Active.  The Human Resources director developed the budget.

Passive.  You are being issued a warning notice for showing up late twice in one week.

Active.  The manager of the shoe store issued you a warning notice for showing up late twice in one week.

4. Don’t rely on weak verbs

Verbs are the meat of your writing.  That said, weak-kneed business writing typically overuses weakling verbs like “to be.” As helping verbs, “to be” and “to have” appear frequently (as in “will bore” in the next clause); however, if used exclusively, your writing will bore the reader.   

Weak.  The coffee is weak.

Strong.  The coffee tasted weak.

Weak.  You are going to like next year’s project

Strong:  Next year’s project will thrill you.

Weak:  I have files in a drawer.

Strong:  I organized files in a drawer. 

5. Stray from an overuse of acronyms, abbreviations, jargon or lingo

If you desire writing that no one will read (why bother?), stick to your acronyms and occupation-specific jargon.  However, if you would like to communicate clearly, avoid these as much as possible.

Unclear.  The 360-degree appraisal system uploaded to BIS w/CSR will be uploaded to EE’s who BYOD.

Clear.  It is our corporate responsibility to provide access to the 360-degree appraisal system.  Employees who bring their own devices (smart phones, laptops, or pads) will have immediate access.  

 6. Remember that clear writing is not the same thing as rude writing

Too often, executives wrongly consider their spare and direct tones in emails and memos the most clear communication style.  The truth, however, is that their communications come off as rude and demanding, which can block the message employees need to hear.   With clarity as our goal, tone cannot be forsaken.  This doesn’t mean you clutter your writing with multiple polite phrases and niceties.  It means you avoid the imperative and purge your style of an inflated ego.

Rude: Staff your department with IT techs because Wi-Fi needs to be available at all times to the management team.  We cannot have another unacceptable meeting during which we are blocked from important documents posted on the Cloud.

Too many polite phrases or niceties:  I sincerely appreciate the work IT is doing to provide Wi-Fi during our planning meetings.  Honestly, I doubt anyone anywhere could do a better job!  I’m sure that the last meeting during which we were simply unable to connect to the Cloud was caused by some unforeseen staffing issue in your department, and I completely understand, as this happens to everyone.  If, in the future, you could possibly let me know a few hours in advance, that would be wonderful.  Again, thank you for all your hard work!  Go team!

Clear:  During our last planning meeting, we were unfortunately unable to access the Cloud due to the Wi-Fi being down.  I wasn’t sure if you were aware or not, but I appreciate in advance the efforts you will make to ensure a solid Wi-Fi connection for our next meeting, which will be on February 21 at 9a.  Thank you.

7. Spell check cannot save you

Relying wholly on spell and grammar check can lead to trouble.  For example, if I had written “holy” rather than “wholly,” you would probably stop reading my advice about clear writing, or any writing for that matter.  Moreover, spell check would have left me high and dry, as “holy” is a real English word.  As a former English teacher, I want the word out that spell check can be wrong.  It consistently wants to mistakenly replace my “its” with “it’s.”  Also, it doesn’t always understand “your” and “you’re.”

My advice here is to take a few moments every day to study grammar.  Start with the use of commas, which will solve 80% of your mistakes.  Studying grammar is easy nowadays, as there are fun web pages and podcasts dedicated to the subject.  Check out Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl:  Quick and Dirty Tips.  She even has a ten-minute podcast that’s easy to understand and fun to listen to on your commute.

As for spelling, if you aren’t sure how to spell the word (and I mean completely sure), use another word that you do know.  This takes us back to my first tip:  use the best word, not the longest word.  This is because the clearest writing uses the words you already know. cropped-Esprit-de-Corps-LOGO