Spell it out: Using plain language to create inclusive workplaces
By Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)
What’s the ROI on that? Have you booked your PTO? Make sure you read the SDS on that chemical.
Organizations and industries have historically used acronyms and expressions to make communication more efficient, as well as to foster camaraderie over a shared language.
But as workplaces become more diverse and demographics change, acronyms, expressions, and other complex language practices can put up unnecessary language barriers. Workers who are new to the workforce, new to the country, or not yet accustomed to their workplace often have difficulty understanding them.
Communicating simply and clearly is a part of plain language principles — a set of guidelines that helps everyone in the workplace understand the information being communicated.
Remove the barriers
There are several barriers that can affect people’s ability to understand, from language challenges to disabilities.
Writing plainly helps remove these barriers because plain language makes communication more accessible. Readers are more likely to understand and comply with the information presented and act on it with fewer mistakes.
All workers (new, young, experienced or new to the country) have the right to know how to perform their work safely. It is important that people understand what they are reading, especially safety documents at work, including safe work procedures, training material, safety signage and posters, and other documentation.
When a reader does not understand the information, they are not able to make informed decisions. This gap creates communication barriers and contributes to frustration, errors, and misunderstanding. Adopting plain language principles allows information to be easily understood and acted on. It is written for all literacy levels.
Plain language benefits everyone, including those with disabilities or people who have trouble reading or seeing. It also helps people for whom the language spoken in the workplace is not their first language. Writing plainly can also help people who are working on an active job site and may not have time to read a long document.
Use plain language
Unclear communication is a serious hazard. It’s important that workplaces use plain language principles to communicate information, especially when it has the potential to affect health and safety.
Workers need to be able to clearly understand safety protocols and know how to report hazards that could cause injury to themselves or their coworkers. High injury rates, low hazard reporting, and safety procedures not being followed can all be indicators of a communication problem.
In any workplace communication, consider who the audience is, and what action they need to take. What does the reader or listener need to understand? When the audience and purpose have been determined, begin to form an outline.
A helpful tool when creating a plain language outline is to apply the inverted triangle writing method. Present the most important information first. Be concise, describe only one concept at a time, and present information logically.
For example, list the steps or actions that must be taken, in the correct order. Sentences and paragraphs should not be too long, so divide them up if necessary. Organize information into steps or lists.
It’s good practice to use an active voice. For example, use “sweep up broken glass immediately” rather than “glass that is broken should be swept up immediately.”
Choose short, familiar words rather than complex or abstract ones and keep the tone positive and conversational. To help explain more complex ideas and concepts, consider using examples or simple scenarios. Repeat what the reader or listener should do in that situation.
Before including acronyms or jargon in workplace communications, consider whether they’re necessary.
The first few weeks of a new job can be stressful for workers who are in a probationary period. Adding on an extensive glossary of terms for them to learn can create additional stress that could lead to the worker feeling pressured to pretend they understand.
Though it may not be possible to eliminate jargon and acronyms completely, you can make sure all new workers have thorough training on any unfamiliar terms or acronyms they need to know to do their job safely.
Individuals who develop or provide health and safety training should make sure that readability levels and language choices of both the materials and instruction suit the learners. Let them know that it’s okay to ask questions about terms they don’t understand. Consider pairing new workers with a more experienced partner.
Being well versed in industry language or jargon can be a point of pride for some workers, because just like any other language, it takes time and expertise to master.
But consider how this makes new workers feel. Being part of an exclusive club can feel good for those inside it, but it doesn’t feel great for those who are excluded.
Employers can facilitate a psychologically safer workplace and an easier transition for new workers by minimizing the use of acronyms and jargon, starting from the top of the organization. When leaders avoid using them in policies, internal communications or presentations, it can lead to a ripple effect with managers, supervisors and other workers.
Get in the habit of using plain language throughout your internal communications such as emails, notices, and posters. If it is assumed that workers aren’t familiar with jargon, its use will diminish over time.
More diversity of thought
A workplace that prioritizes accessible language is one in which workers feel comfortable to offer ideas and improved ways of doing things. In most cases, acronyms and jargon are unnecessary. So why not try eliminating them altogether?
Communicating in plain language isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone, particularly in workplaces where complex language has been a part of day-to-day communication for some time.
Consider everyone in your audience, especially those who are newer or who face communication challenges. Don’t hesitate to recruit a member of that audience to review any written communication, new policy or presentation for opportunities to simplify.
The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) promotes the total well-being — physical, psychosocial, and mental health — of workers in Canada by providing information, advice, education, and management systems and solutions that support the prevention of injury and illness. Visit www.ccohs.ca for more safety tips.