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Communications: when longer isn’t better

I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. – Mark Twain

We’re all guilty of it.  There’s evidence of our guilt printed out and stored in organized, paper files and scattered all over the cloud.  I’m talking about the multipage e-mails that go into copious detail about the rules that need to be followed and why they’re important.  These e-mails are excellent reference documents if employees read far enough into them to remember what the e-mail are about in the distant future.  With the sheer volume of e-mails coming in on an hourly basis, it’s unlikely that more than a small fraction of employees are reading our missives.

I think some of this is because so many of us in compliance and ethics come from the law.  It’s important to be clear and exhaustive with details and explanation because we’re creating documentation.  We want to make sure that our documentation has no pinpricks for the other side (lawyers are always anticipating the other side) to wedge open into an expensive judgment, settlement, or fine.

In my experience, compliance and ethics requires more finesse.  We’re trying to be preventive, and we shouldn’t be treating employees, our colleagues, as the other side.  For one thing, employees aren’t our enemy.  For another thing, when we do treat them like the enemy, it puts their backs and defenses up, making them less receptive to our messages.

We have to help employees read and absorb our messages by making them short.  Instead of going into all the details of the FCPA or anticorruption, and the trouble the company can get into if it runs afoul of the law, we need to skip straight to what red flags look like and what employees should be looking for.  Ideally, we should do this within one e-mail screen.

There are instances when going longer makes more sense.  In the right context, with the right goal, and for the right audience, an entire page of e-mail can be effective.

There are more instances, though, when the context, goal, and audience requires us to go shorter.  This often means that instead of covering a couple of important topics, we only address one.  It means that instead of giving legal context for a policy or procedure, we focus on the individual impact of the policy or procedure.  Employees who have a question about a topic will come to us for answers if our communications spark curiosity.  Communications won’t do that if they aren’t read.  It’s crucial that we take the time to make them short.

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