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Cher or Thatcher: Does grammar matter in the workplace?

CommunicationWhy bother with grammar? Why do we need it? It’s too complicated. Who cares anyway? With Twitter and Facebook and SMS-speak, people understand what we are saying without our having to get all that grammar stuff right; and, of course, spelling doesn’t matter any more. Or does it?

Well, Twitter exploded in a frenzy on Monday over the presumed death of singer and entertainer, Cher. The reason? A Twitter hashtag commenting on the death of ex-British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The hashtag was #nowthatchersdead—did it mean “Now Thatcher is dead”, or “Now that Cher is dead”? Take your pick. But when it comes to your employees and your customers, clarity is essential.

Most of us think that we communicate pretty well.  We believe that we explain ourselves very clearly and that there is no reason for employees to misunderstand us.  But according to a Harris Interactive study only 49% of employees clearly understand what they are supposed to do to help their organisation achieve its goals. That is really serious. We are not talking about inconsequential stuff. We are talking about achieving the organisation’s goals—the fundamental reason why we are at work. The majority of employees out there simply do not know what they are supposed to be doing. My experience is that many managers fail to explain what is required; they assume the employee knows. And when the explanation is given, it is often not clear enough. Yet clarity is essential, not only on Twitter.

When an employee fails to perform, the next step may be dismissal for poor performance. If that happens, the process you as manager followed will be held up for scrutiny. Did you explain the job and the standards required? Did you explain why the employee’s performance wasn’t up to scratch and discuss what you and the employee should do to fix the problem? If not, let us rather say no more—there is going to be trouble. If you did explain everything, and kept a record of it all, then that record will be held up in court.

But who will hold it up? That will depend on how clear your explanations were. If you did a good job and the explanations were clear, then you can hold that record up as proof of the clarity of your communication, which, you will tell the court, any reasonable employee would understand. If things were not so clear, and your instructions were as ambiguous as the Thatcher hashtag, then the employee’s representative will present the documents as evidence of your failure to explain the job, the procedures and the standards. He will tell the court that your callous dismissal was for no good reason.

Grammar and spelling are important, not because there is a right and wrong way, but because we can choose to communicate clearly or ambiguously. What would you prefer?

Please share your experience of miscommunication in the comments below.

Ian Webster

From Methodist minister to Customer Relations manager in a computer bureau to HR Manager in a newspaper printing and publishing company. Now focussing on training and developing people, people-management consulting and writing and editing.

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