When an Unwritten Rule Needs to Be a Policy and 15 Tips for Writing It
When should an unwritten rule become formalized with a policy or procedure?
My career began with a small company (12 employees) and owners who were trusting and flexible. Employees were expected to show up on time and get the work done, and there was little mention of vacation or sick days. If you were sick you stayed home. If you wanted to take a day off, you just let your boss know and did it. That all worked well until one employee started taking advantage of the informal PTO policy with a steady increase in her sick and personal days. Co-workers ended up with an increasing amount of her work as she stretched the rules. Resentment and complaining began to build.
Shortly after, a PTO policy was written and distributed.
While unwritten rules can work for a while, they often break down due to company growth, increased change and additional complexity.
Put a rule in writing when you need to control, inform, educate or direct. Consider if the situation has happened before, will it happen again and are their financial and legal concerns if it does. Here are some examples of when to formalize a rule:
- Significant company change
- Voiced questions or complaint
- Cost overruns
- Increased waste
- New or updated laws
- Out-of-bounds interpretation of unwritten policies or procedures
Once you’ve made the decision to put the rule or procedure in writing, resist the temptation to just jump right in. Research is a vital step before you begin.
- Gather your ideas
- Organize your material
- Consider length, project requirements and intricacy
- Study your audience
- Conduct any necessary meetings, surveys or workshops
Once you’ve completed your research, here are tips for writing the policy or procedure so there’s no room for misinterpretation:
- Use everyday words and phrases
- Use one- and two-syllable words when possible
- Rewrite wordy phrases. Use “because” instead of “the reason is …”
- Watch for redundancy. Use “each” or “every” instead of “each and every.”
- Make good use of transitions
- Delete unnecessary adjectives and modifiers
- Keep clauses and phrases short or break them into separate sentences
- Generally, keep sentences to 15 to 20 words at most
- Keep paragraphs short
- Use one-sentence paragraphs when appropriate
- Use bulleted lists
- Start with an action verb
- Use present tense
- Write in the active voice: Subject-verb-object construction
- Avoid jargon and clichés
No one wants a long list of unnecessary rules. But formalized policies and procedures do have a place. Consider the situations that might warrant written guidelines. Then do some research before you start. And when you write, make it succinct and easy to understand.