Can Your Employees Understand Your Policies?

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How readability impacts your ethics & compliance program effectiveness


In the world of compliance we have to balance legal defensibility with effective communication with employees. That can create significant challenges.

The good news is that there is a sometimes-overlooked process that can make a significant improvement in our ethics and compliance materials:  a readability assessment.

Improve your Program Effectiveness by Using Readability Tools

Companies need to make sure their code, policies and other key compliance communications are understandable to all employees—no matter their education level. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) conducted a study that found the average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level.

This information is very important for anyone in a compliance, HR or legal role. If your code has a readability grade of 8.0 or higher, many of your employees, like the fisherman in our opening example, may be saying, “Huh?”

Other research has also confirmed the link between readability and successful communications. In one study, the owner of a subscription-based newsletter found that authors who wrote with the highest “reading ease” score prompted the most renewals. This is a fantastic example of a direct relationship between writing simplicity and success. 

The Flesch-Kincaid scale is the most common tool for calculating readability. It calculates a “reading ease” score on a scale of 0-100. On this scale, you’re aiming for a score above 90. This indicates that your text can be easily understood by an average 11-year-old student. The Flesch-Kincaid scale also calculates a Reading Grade Level score that tells you what grade level the text is most appropriate for. You’ll want to aim for a score of approximately grade eight or below.

Six Steps to Improve Readability

I suggest that you and your team get in the habit of checking the readability of your documents. Consider adding a readability check as a step in your document creation and review workflow.  You can use free online tools to calculate your score. Or, you can enable a Flesch-Kincaid readability score check in Microsoft Word—and even in Outlook.

Search “test your document's readability” on the web to find instructions for your specific version of the program. (Be aware: there can be significant differences in the way different tools calculate readability scores. Microsoft Word 2010 tends to grade a little higher than some of the other tools.)

If your scores are out of your target range, look for places to simplify language and sentence structure. To improve your Flesch-Kinkaid score, consider the following changes:

  1. Replace long or complex sentences with shorter sentences. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” Shorter sentences improve both readability and clarity, resulting in an increase in writing quality. 
  2. Replace complex words with simple words. From our opening example, the word “use” rather than “engage”; “trip” rather than “excursion.”
  3. Use natural, conversational language whenever possible. Read your document out loud. Hearing it will help you spot those places where the language could be improved.
  4. Replace passive voice with active voice. Active voice is more straightforward and easier for readers to understand.
  5. Embrace whitespace. “Whitespace” refers to the space between the text and graphic elements in a document.  If everything is crammed together, a policy or code of conduct can be very difficult to read.  Make sure you give your text, images, lists, and other elements in the document room to breathe.
  6. Include photos, illustrations, charts and graphs: Good pictures, embedded videos and graphs can speak a thousand words.

The end result of your focus on increasing readability will be a document that is clearer, more concise, higher quality, more accessible to more of your employees—and most importantly, more likely to be understood and complied with.

As compliance professionals, we have the chance to improve the quality of the documents we write—and improve our stakeholders’ experience when reading and complying with the principles in our materials.  

How has your organization tackled readability? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.


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