What Happens When Workplace Policies Are Written with Legalese?

While your workplace policies are necessary, they may not be as effective as they could be. Effective development and implementation of company policies best helps employees to align with company goals and expectations.

At a minimum, companies should avoid legalese when writing corporate policies, but they should also use clear language, include useful content, and implement policies through the actions of employees.

What is Legalese? And Why is It Bad?

Legalese is the formal and technical language of legal documents. For example, phrases like “and/or,” “herein,” “provided that,” “pursuant to,” and “shall” are common legalese used by attorneys that often confuse everyday readers, according to the ABA Journal. Confusion arises because these words have either unknown or multiple meanings.

In Above the Law, attorney Stefan Savic explains: “Just as a Game of Thrones fan cannot really explain what an episode in season 6 is about to someone who does not watch it, explaining the intricacies of the rule against perpetuities to a non-lawyer (or in that example even to a lawyer) can be very challenging.”

How Does Legalese Impact Employee Conduct?

Imagine the effect of an unreadable code that explains how a target of sexual harassment can report and resolve their concerns. The Harvard Business Review analyzed a study of employees presented with a typical sexual harassment policy.

Results showed that the actual words of the sexual harassment policy bore little resemblance to the employees’ interpretations of the policy. Employees twisted the words of the sexual harassment policy, revealing their underlying biases—like women being “irrational”—and gross legal misinterpretation.

The author warned: “Remember that sexual harassment policies are not just legal documents. They are also culturally important, meaning-making documents that should play a role in defining, preventing, and stopping sexual harassment in an organization.”

The fact that a document is “legal” in nature doesn’t mean that the language in it must be “legal” as well.

Best Practices for Writing Workplace Policies

Optimally, your corporate policies should positively employ effective communication. Research on code development found that employees, managers, and ethics officers consider codes more effective when they are readable, relevant, and have a positive tone.

In addition to being clear and concise, the most effective codes are accessible to employees as well as to agents and consultants. My colleague Karen Peterson offers many tips for developing a code of conduct, such as:

  • Obtaining buy-in across the organization with input from a multidisciplinary team
  • Including the organization’s mission statement, vision, and values that reflect its commitment to ethics, integrity, and quality
  • Clarifying that the organization expects individuals to act with honesty and integrity in addition to complying with legal requirements
  • Describing expected behaviors rather than stating prohibitions
  • Covering relevant risks, employment practices, protecting corporate assets, and managing third-party relationships
  • Making it user friendly and applicable to all individuals covered by the code
  • Using simple, concise, and easily understood language (and providing translated versions as needed)
  • Describing enforcement and disciplinary procedures
  • Soliciting feedback on the code from all levels of the organization
  • Updating to improve content and address new issues or risk areas

An obvious solution is axing legalese from legal documents like policies. But as Peterson emphasizes, this is insufficient. A lot more goes into effective workplace policies and communications.

Beyond Workplace Policies and Procedures

Just as policies and procedures need to be accessible and informative, a company must implement them effectively. In addition to developing the content of a policy, human resources, compliance officers, and ethical managers must know all workplace policies and make themselves available to explain, clarify, and exemplify workplace policies in everyday actions. Legalese in workplace policies alienates employees, but so can unthoughtful content and a lack of follow up.

Training on Your Policies and Procedures

EVERFI delivers online compliance training courses to help your business meet compliance requirements both dynamically and scalably. In addition to our award-winning online courses, EVERFI delivers a robust, cloud-based learning management system to help you easily deploy and track our growing library of ethics, anti-harassment, data security and employee conduct courses.