Chaucer, the Prioress, her Lip, and your Employee Handbook

Too many handbooks are written in a style popularized by bewigged and pompous barristers who practiced law circa 1791. This can cause employees to tune out.

When I read poorly drafted handbooks, I am reminded of the angst that I felt while reading Chaucer in college (full apologies to Dr. Gillin who was a great teacher and a lovely man). I recall sitting in class while Dr. Gillin read us a description of the Prioress in The Canterbury Tales.  One “helpful” phrase that Chaucer used to describe the Prioress was:

Hir over-lippe wyped she so clene.

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight.  Dr. Gillin patiently explained that this unusual grouping of letters was meant to convey that the Prioress was particularly competent at wiping her greasy upper lip after a meal. While I am very much in favor of proper table manners, Chaucerian language made it unnecessarily difficult and tedious for me to understand this lovely tale.

Handbook policies are supposed to guide the employee at work. They should be well-edited, consistent, devoid of “legalese”, and without needless repetition.  Using our friends Chaucer and the Prioress, I offer the following examples:

Bad Policy:     All full and part-time and temporary employees shall, at all times, maintain over-lippes wyped so clene or they will be subject to discipline, with or without notice, up to and including termination of their at-will employment with employer. The Company may elect, in its sole discretion, to provide napkins (paper, linen, or any such other material as may, from time to time be deemed appropriate by the Company) for over-lippe wyping.

Good Policy:   Please keep your face clean.

My angst over Chaucerian language finally has a purpose!  It has led me to today’s legal tip.  Work hard to ensure that your handbook doesn’t become an unwieldy tome.  Convey policies using simple and straightforward language.  Your employees (who do not have helpful Dr. Gillin to guide them) will thank you.