It’s easy to underestimate the power of words. Many supervisors fail to appreciate the importance of the words used in a performance review or evaluation, corrective action, termination letter, or other employment-related document. But it can go beyond the obvious instances.
In an age-discrimination case, a supervisor had attended a presentation by a contractor who was trying to bid work with the employer. The supervisor wrote in his notes that the type of work would be perfect for “young engineers.” What the supervisor meant was that the work being bid was well suited for entry-level engineers, who could gain valuable experience that, often, was quite difficult to find.
You may imagine that the plaintiff’s lawyer jumped on the word “young” from the supervisor’s notes, using it as an opportunity to make it look like the supervisor preferred young engineers over older ones. An age-based preference such as this would, of course, be unlawful if used in decisions to hire, fire, or assign work. As you also may imagine, it made for an unpleasant deposition of the supervisor–an experience he surely did not forget any time soon.
On the other hand, it also is possible to get far too caught up in the definition or meaning of a particular word. Lawyers are great at this, as this very funny video from the N.Y. Times makes clear.
The lesson to be learned? Words really do matter in every context. Be aware of what you put into writing–generally, less is more and the more specific, the better. But don’t play word games when the basics can get the job done.
Documentation in the workplace can be absolutely critical in preventing and defending against claims by employees. It may be time to consider a refresher course about best practices in HR documentation. If so, let us know–we have an excellent training program on this subject.