Special Case: Sexual Harassment Proves Challenging Writing New
You are beginning a most important part of this course, memo writing. A memo is considered a short report. It, therefore, has all the characteristics of a report. You normally write a report to inform or to explain information. A memo serves that purpose, too. A memo is mainly written to place something "on the record."
Memos are identified by their format. The format means their protocol or the way they are set up. You normally have four parts to the format of a memo:
- To line
- From line
- Date line
- Subject line.
The "To" line means to whom you are sending the memo or the e-mail. Remember that e-mail is just another form of memo with its special protocol. The "From" line means your name as the person sending the memo. The "Date" line is usually written out (November 17, Year), although you could, in some memos, have the date line as 11-17-Year. The "Subject" line is the most important part of the memo. The subject line either makes or breaks the memo. The subject line is usually expressed in about three-five words. It should carry the impact of what the memo is about.
The subject line often becomes the most neglected part of the memo. People assume they know what the subject is. If you are writing a memo about a listening experience you had, you assume the subject is what was talked about. That does not follow. The subject line tells what the memo is about, not what topic of listening occurred. You, therefore, would probably write:
SUBJECT: LISTENING EFFORT or
SUBJECT: LISTENING EXPERIENCE
Please observe you do not use the word, "MEMO," in the subject line. It is assumed you are writing a memo when you say: To, From, Date, Subject. That format immediately suggests a memo without your having to tell the reader again. Also, you have to be careful of the political significance of the subject line. You would never write, for example, the following:
SUBJECT: POOR JOB ON PROJECT
The reader becomes offended immediately by what you have written. Perhaps, the project was poorly done. You would, instead, use a neutral sounding subject line to catch the reader's attention. For example, you could say:
SUBJECT: CONCERN ABOUT LAST PROJECT
You have not said in the subject line what the concern is. The reader has to look at the memo to discover your concern as a manager. Also, the subject line (if properly written) causes the reader to want to read the memo. You have not offended readers before they even start reading the memo. You, also, do not want to bore your reader with lengthy subject lines.
The other day a student asked a provocative question about how the 5 W's fit in a memo. It is worth exploring. If you think of newspaper headlines, you always encounter the 5 W's. You want to know immediately as a reader the Who, What, Where, When, and Why. In a memo you want that same information in the first paragraph. You don't want to bother your reader pondering why in the world the memo should be read.
Let's take the Who first. Let's say you are writing a memo about your progress on your report topic. You want to tell the reader Who is involved with the report problem, the company, organization, entity, or institution. You talk about how you became involved in the problem. You are still discussing Who. Consider now the What. You are discussing the circumstances that led up to the report problem. You noticed a stop light has been needed on your street for years. That is the What. Further, let's look at the Where. What city are you studying? What geographical area are you considering? Where will your data be collected? Our next consideration is the When. When do you want to study the report problem? Usually, your answer is the current year. You may want to talk about records you need to study and the periods of time for those documents. You are still discussing When. The Why has a following separate paragraph devoted to the subject. You want your reader to know the purpose you are writing the memo for. You talk about the Why.
Take a message from a major newspaper, the Los Angeles Times(Ralph Frammolino and Geoff Boucher, February 21, 2001). Look at the first paragraph of a lead article on the front page. Can you spot the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of the article? Here goes:
Detroit--In the small neighborhoods of again brick houses on this city's east side, the streets stretching into the suburbs are intersected by roads marking the distance from the downtown core. Eight Mile Road is the city limits, followed by Nine Mile Road and so on. Everybody here knows that, like rungs on the social ladder, you go up to get out.
But it was here on the lower rungs a decade ago that a young white kid named Marshall Bruce Mathers III found a different escape from urban poverty. Growing up in a tough black neighborhood, his path was to embrace--not run from--music that sprang from the anger and violence of the black urban experience.
You can see the beautiful writing in the previous passages, but did you spot the Who, What, When, Where, and Why? All were evident in those first two paragraphs.
When you finish a memo, you are not quite done. Let's say you want to include job descriptions, project data, or various vendor quotes. Your memo needs to reflect those attachments. You usually space down about three spaces to the Attachments section of the memo. The word is blocked under the last line of the memo. You may also say what the attachments include. For example, you could report the attachments this way:
Attachments: job descriptions
You always have to let your reader know what to look for when you are sending a memo. Readers cannot guess what the contents might be.
The first sentence of your memo remains paramount. When you are first starting to write memos, you may want to depend on this crutch: "I am writing this memo to tell you . . ." Later, as you become more sophisticated in memo writing, you may want to change the phrasing to "This memo concerns . . ." or This memo tells you about . . ." You have to remind the reader that you have a purpose for writing. People have to know why they have to read communications. You don't keep the news from them by waiting until the end of the first paragraph.
You can then go into the details of who, what, where, and when as you develop the first paragraph. Memos demand purposes. Too much paper and electronic communication exist for people to waste their time on thoughtless memos ill prepared and ill conceived.
Next, look at the length of your paragraphs. Have you developed your topic properly?
Memos are often not read because they are too long. It takes too long to find the meat of the message. The same analysis applies to e-mail. We say the longest paragraph is read first, because that paragraph appears to be the most important. It certainly takes the most room. Room does not mean meaningful content. You can secure readability of your memos by placing those topic sentences and most important ideas first in the paragraph. Get to the point and to the point soon.
You should not leave any room for the memo reader to guess what you meant. Did you say you intended to hold a meeting? If so, when and where? Who will be attending? What is the proposed agenda? How can your reader help to prepare for this meeting? Keep the major ideas up front.
When you start any memo by keyboarding the document, you are immediately faced with spacing and format. Memos need to have a clean appearance. They need to be presentable to the reader. Therefore, you need some spacing guidelines.
Space twice vertically between the To, From, Date, and Subject. That gives you space to write anything that might require two lines. It has already been mentioned you should align everything after the colons. This effort gives a businesslike appearance to the entire first portion of the document. It looks impressive. After all, don't you want your memo to be read?
Normally, I would triple space vertically after the subject line to the first line of the first paragraph. Single space the paragraphs and double space between the paragraphs. The double spacing between the paragraphs acts as a way of indenting the paragraphs and starting the next thoughts. When you have talking captions in a memo, first underline the talking caption fully and then double space vertically before the talking caption and after the caption.
The Attachments section of the memo has its own spacing concerns. I would triple space to the Attachments section. Then, after making writing the word, Attachment(s), and the colon, make your list by placing commas throughout your list.
You should probably allow at least one-inch top, side, and bottom margins. That gives the memo a much better appearance than "bleeding" the lines to the far corners of each paper side. Make your memo inviting. People(readers)want to examine your thoughts. Through spacing and formatting you have presented a more acceptable product. You have dealt with your image.
When you write a memo about your progress in finding a report topic, you are faced with some major considerations. The memo should be built somewhat this way:
- Paragraph One: why writing the memo; purpose of report; any special progress
- Paragraph Two: problem stated as question; scope and limitations; background of the problem
- Paragraph Three: how data will be gathered; any anticipated problems in gathering data
- Paragraph Four: feedback by asking questions of the reader
In the first paragraph, how do you discuss the purpose? Purpose means your goal or objective in writing the report. I wouldn't say: "The purpose of this report is to . . ." That just becomes too wordy. State your purpose without even having to say "The purpose is . . ."
How do we state the problem as a question? One of the best ways to define a problem is to state the idea as a question. Consider this crutch: "What can be done about . . ." :Let's take an example: "What can be done about improving the parking at Lot M, California State University, Northridge? Here in the previous question you have scope and limitations. The scope is the subject matter of the report. The limitations are the boundaries we build around the problem.
How do you express the ways you will gather the data? First, talk about using interviews, questionnaires, or both. Talk about who will receive the instruments (e.g. the interviews)? Will employees and managers be questioned? I talked to one student recently who was concerned about the issue of access to the data. He wanted to study the security problems at his apartment complex. I mentioned he must survey the manager, the selected tenants, and the police for a rounded view of the problem. That means access to the data.
When you reach the last paragraph of the progress memo, ask the reader a number of questions. What do you think of my progress so far? How can I improve the way the topic is structured? Can I find enough data? Am I on the right track? All of these questions and many more force the reader to contemplate what you have said in your progress memo or any document. You are forcing the reader to answer. No more powerful communication device exists than the direct question.
Report Progress Needs Example
To: Dr. G. Jay Christensen
Progress Needs Discussion
From: Melanie R. Student
Subject: REPORT PROGRESS
You asked for our progress on finding a report topic. At this time I would like to study how turnover can be decreased at the department store, NAT Readywear, Glendale. At this particular company I have worked as a sales associate for the past five years. My boss tells me the turnover has increased considerably in the last one and one-half years. He is concerned about how we can hang on to valued employees.
Turnover Needs Study
Within the last six months we have lost two department managers who could not easily be replaced. Our rates of compensation are comparable with the rest of the industry. What can be done to reduce the selected department turnover at NAT Readywear, Glendale, California? This report concerns only that department store and its related areas where turnover is particularly severe. I will only look at the branch in Glendale instead of the entire national chain of stores. Turnover will only be discussed as opposed to all other activities in the store, including merchandising and inventory. Since the merger with MAC Clothing, Inc., NAT Readywear has experienced a continuing loss of personnel. Certain of our employees were apprehensive about what the merger would do to their jobs. Naturally, MAC brought in its own management, but it did retain some of our department managers.
Store Sampling Becomes Critical
Data gathering becomes critical to solving this turnover problem. I will need to talk to the remaining department managers as well as corporate. Fortunately, our e-mail system allows us to communicate with all levels of management. Also, a selected sample of the store associates will need to be polled. I anticipate that background reading should be done on the effects of the merger. We have a house organ called NAT Speaks that should be useful for finding additional data. Before the merger, our management sampled store employee opinion about the impending merger. These data will also come in handy. Other than those concerns, I anticipate the data gathering should flow fairly smooth.
What do you think of my progress so far? Does the report make sense? Am I on the right track? Can you think of some surveys I have not considered? Does the report appear too broad? Does the scope make sense? I look forward to hearing from you or visiting in your office about the report's progress.
It is disturbing to note in the headlines that the National Safety and Transportation Board (NTSB) is concerned about a NOTAM (a Notice to Airmen, or a kind of memo) that was asking airports like Aspen, Colorado, to not allow flying after dark into a dangerous conditions. The night we lost 15 passengers and three crew when a Gulf Stream private aircraft circled once into Aspen will never be forgotten.
The NSTB has indicated in its preliminary investigation that the NOTAM written by an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) official was confusing when it was issued to the Aspen air controllers with verbal confirmation by the pilot. The pilot saw the message and indicated his assent before filing the flight plan for Aspen. The air traffic controllers in Aspen thought the NOTAM memo meant aircraft could not continue to circle the airport.
The acting chairwoman, Carol Carmody, of the NTSB further commented on the ambiguity of the language. The NOTAM did not ban an instrument approach at the airport, only a circling approach (Tom Gorman and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, "Doomed Jet Got OK for Procedure Banned by FAA," Los Angeles Times, 1 April 2001, p. A28). It is worth noting that two other planes approaching Aspen that same night aborted their landings. They flew to other airports. At the moment, the NTSB is investigating Avjet's Gulf Stream manuals and plane's maintenance records. To review, this Aspen flight had been organized as a lavish birthday bash for a business partner. Eighteen people lost their lives, partly because of miscommunication in memos and interpretations by controllers.
What lessons can we glean from this miscommunication? Always be sure of the words in any memo and what their interpretation was from the writer's as well as the reader's standpoint. Read everything more than once. Sometimes what was intended in the written word does not come out quite that way when read quickly.
Don't depend on readers who are busy individuals to interpret the words the same way the writer meant to say them.
Fatal Words. That is a title of a book I am reading by Steven Cushing. In that book he deals with fatal crashes from the downed plane in the Azores to recent fatalities. The full reference is: Fatal Words: Communication Clashes and Aircraft Crashes (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997). Such a simple word as hold in the hands of pilots and air traffic controllers could mean "stop what you're doing" or the common meaning of "continue what you're doing" (p. 2, Cushing). Accidents, and worse, occur because of the misunderstanding of words. It doesn't take a written memo to create an emergency. Verbal utterances mean just as much as written understandings.
When you decide to create a paper trail with a sexual harassment memo, you find a rude surprise. Your subject line, for example, can't read: "Sexual Harassment." Sexual harassment is a legal term and must be carefully used, if at all, to denote behavior unproven. You say I can prove my boss harassed me. Then, prove with facts and examples, not innuendos.
You have to look at sexual harassment carefully, as already mentioned. Sexual harassment or some form of it usually occurs because of a power struggle. Your boss asks you to do something that is against your principles. For example, the boss suggests you can get ahead in the organization if you sleep with the boss. That is tantamount to sexual harassment, but the burden of proof still rests on you to prove the conversation took place. It is your word against the boss's word.
Let's take another situation. Off-color jokes about one's sexual preference are made at a business meeting. Is that sexual harassment? Some would say yes, and some would say the case needs to be proven. It helps to have a sexual harassment policy in place that defines people's behavior in the workplace.
When you write this paper trail as a hard copy memo, remember you should exhibit the professionalism that you want to occur in the workplace. Don't expect the person to desist the behavior. You recognize you are building a case. Above all, don't threaten the person by saying the following: "If you don't cease and desist this behavior, I will be forced to report you to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). People do not respond well to threats, especially your boss. Suppose your performance review is coming up shortly, and you make that threat. Your boss can easily add words about your inability to get along with others and your hostile attitude.
That brings up a good point. Sexual harassment or the possibility of it usually occurs in a hostile environment.
You need to look at the work environment and determine whether it is hostile. That is the key in understanding sexual harassment, a hostile environment. If the incident remains a minor one, think about whether you want to file formal charges. If you threaten human resources management, are you prepared to follow through on your threat and create a more formal, stiffer environment with your boss? David Oppenheimer in "Employer Liability for Sexual Harassment by Supervisors" (Catharine A. MacKinnon and Reva B. Siegel, eds. Directions in Sexual Harassment Law, Yale University Press, 2004, p. 275) points out the U.S. Court of Appeals demands proof:
". . . the United States Court of Appeals held that unless the employee could prove that the employer, through its very highest
officials, knew of the harassment and failed to act, or provided no reasonable avenue for complaint, the employer was
Therefore, caution means you would write such a memo to place "on the record." You realize nothing may be done with your memo, but you have started the process.
The power of the memo in a possible sexual harassment incident lies in your words. Your words carry a meaning, and you want the meaning to have positive overtones. Therefore, leave out the threats, the innuendos, and the unproven accusations. As Jack Webb used to say on the TV program years ago, "Just the facts, m'am."
FIRST/SECOND WEEK BONUS POINT
You are listening to someone, and the person starts shouting at you and using expletives. What part of the listening process (steps) has been violated? Why?
You may want to check the the home page for additional help and hints. You may also want to tie in the Talking Captions, E-mail, and Analytical Report Memo links.
copyright(c)G. Jay Christensen, All Rights Reserved
Last updated Monday, November 28, 2005