A reader writes:
Like you, I work at a nonprofit. I am executive director and have a staff of two great employees.
I have a new employee who always uses a big word when a smaller word would do. I would not say a word except that it sometimes makes it hard to understand what she is trying to ask or tell you, because the larger word is not always the right word. For example, when she left today she told me she would finalize something Monday instead of finish it. I am afraid that it also confuses people when she is talking to them on the phone and explaining how our main program works. It’s a concept a lot of people have a hard time grasping anyway.
The touchy thing is how to get her to be more brief and use shorter words when talking to people on the phone. I do not hear her phone calls unless I happen to walk up to her cubicle as she is talking on the phone, but hear enough to know that she uses large words on the phone as well as in conversation and uses a lot more words than necessary to explain things. It has to confuse people she talks to because it confuses me. Today I walked up as she told one of our board members I had asked her to call and retrieve a credit card number we can use to guarantee a hotel reservation for a conference. I guess one example of always using a larger word would be to say individual rather than person.
I think she may have grown up around a good many country people who did not speak properly and is trying to overcompensate. She is a college graduate. Besides the fact that it is sometimes hard for me to understand what she is asking or telling me, I think it may hold back her career in the long run. We deal with members of the bar and it does help to speak well.
She rarely needs to write many letters that I do not sign before I can correct them and provide feedback because I write my own letters. However, I have been copied on a couple of her emails and they are not clear at all. I was going to tell her that her writing skills are a weakness and send her to a business writing community education class at a local college. I am not old but am amazed at the lack of writing skills people just a few years younger than me lack.
The trick is how to say something without sounding snooty. I grew up in a town smaller than the town she is from so am not coming at this from the perspective of a city person. I have stopped her sometimes when she has said, “I had went” instead of “I went or I had gone” and asked her what her English teacher would say about that in a lighthearted manner while saying that my teacher used to get me all the time for saying ain’t. She is very sweet and a hard worker. I just do not know how to address this without sounding overly picky. I may be overly picky though.
Hmmm. Actually, the examples you gave (“finalize” rather “finish” and “retrieve” rather than “get”) don’t seem all that egregious. “Individual” rather than “person” is a pet peeve of mine, but I’m just not sure you’ve got a major problem on your hands in this area, unless the problem is much worse than these examples imply.
However, since you said that you often have trouble understanding what she means, I’m going to assume that the problem is worse than these examples imply. So I’d address it straightforwardly, by saying something like, “I’ve noticed that you sometimes struggle to communicate what you want to say concisely and clearly, and sometimes it can lead to people being confused about what you’re telling them. For instance, I’ve noticed you tend to pick bigger words when a simpler one might get the point across better. And I’d also like to see you be more vigilant about using correct grammar, in order to present a more professional image to the people we work with. You have lots of potential here, but this is something we need to work on fixing because it’s something that could keep you from accomplishing all you otherwise could.”
Sending her to a business writing class could help things. And since you’ve noticed she has trouble clearly describing how your program works, and that’s something really important that she needs to be able to communicate clearly, work with her directly on that one — helping her to come up with a clear, concise description that she can use every time she needs to answer that question.
I don’t think you need to worry about this being snooty unless you’re secretly feeling snooty about it (in which case it may come across). Instead, you should see this as feedback like any other, and simply be straightforward and direct in giving it. Good luck!