One of my smart clients is involved in an effort to improve HR communication in her organization. And one of the enhancements she is recommending is that all communication be written at the eighth-grade reading level.

Why eighth grade? Not because employees at her company are uneducated, but because she knows that eighth grade is a good middle ground between very simple (most advertising these days is at the sixth-grade level) and too complicated (the 12th or 13th grade level of college textbooks).

(How is reading level calculated? The most common tool is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readibility Test. To test your own writing, Microsoft Word offers a nifty tool as part of its Spelling-Grammar check.)

Here’s the challenge: Eighth-grade reading level can be difficult to achieve, especially when the topic is complex. As soon as you start including a lot of detail, and using legally approved language, it’s easy for the reading level to shoot up.

To illustrate, let’s visit a new guide published by the U.S. Department of Labor called “Need Time? The Employee’s Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act.”

The guide has an admirable objective: to clarify the often-bewildering Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) criteria and processes. And it contains some useful tools, such as a flowchart that answers the question, “Am I eligible for an FMLA leave?”

But, despite having a friendly, helpful tone, the guide is mostly written at a 12th grade level. For example, here’s an explanation of that scary-sounding term, “in loco parentis.”

in Loco Parentis

A child under the FMLA includes not only a biological or adopted child, but also a foster child, a stepchild, a legal ward, or a child of a person standing in loco parentis. The FMLA regulations define in loco parentis as including those with day-to-day responsibilities to care for and financially support a child. Employees who have no biological or legal relationship with a child may nonetheless stand in loco parentis to the child and be entitled to FMLA leave. For example, an uncle who is caring for his young niece and nephew when their single parent has been called to active military duty or an employee who is co-parenting a child with his or her same sex partner may exercise their right to FMLA leave. Also, an eligible employee is entitled to take FMLA leave to care for a person who stood in loco parentis to the employee when the employee was a child. (See Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2010-3 and Fact Sheets 28B and C.)

Oh, man. If you actually tried to read that, it was a lot of work, wasn’t it? Yet this headache-inducing passage could be simplified and brought down from 12th to eighth-grade level just by making some small changes:

In loco parentis is a legal term meaning “in the place of a parent.”  Under FMLA regulations, you can take a leave not only to care for a biological or adopted child. You’re also eligible if you care for and financially support a:

  • foster child
  • stepchild
  • legal ward

You don’t have to have a legal relationship with the child you’re caring for to take an FMLA leave. For example, both these people would be eligible:

  • An uncle caring for his young niece when her single parent has been called to active military duty
  • A person co-parenting a child with his or her same-sex partner

And if, when you were a child, someone took care of you in loco parentis, you can take an FMLA leave to tend to him or her now.

Need more details? (include a link here)

The passage is now at a seventh-grade reading level. How did I do it? I split up the long paragraph into manageable chunks. I divided each long sentence into two or three shorter sentences. I used bullets. And I simplified the language.

Eighth-grade reading level is possible, even if the topic is technical. But you’ve have to work hard to keep it simple.

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