Write it Down! When an Unwritten Rule Needs to Be a Policy

When should an informal, unwritten rule become formalized within a policy or procedure? How about immediately?

If any of you were lucky enough to ever work for a small company like I did early in my career, a mom-and-pop place with 15 employees, the owners are often 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. As long as your shift or work load got covered, they were pretty easy going. Time off was an unwritten rule.

That all worked well until the company hired its 23rd employee, Missy. After being an excellent employee for her first six or seven months, Missy started taking advantage of the informal paid-time-off (PTO) policy. Over a few months, we all noticed a steady increase in her sick and personal days. Co-workers ended up with an increasing amount of her work on our plates as she stretched the rules. Resentment and complaining began to build.

Shortly after, a PTO policy was written and distributed. As you can imagine, it was derisively known among the employees as, “The Missy Rules”. Ironically, she left the company about a month later. Dang you, Missy!

Don’t let an unwritten rule trip your company up … write it down! 

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:

  • Accidents
  • Significant company change
  • Voiced questions or complaint
  • Cost overruns
  • Increased waste
  • Inconsistency
  • Misunderstandings
  • New or updated laws
  • Sensitivity
  • Volatility
  • Stress
  • 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

Now for the final step to turn an unwritten rule into policy

Once you’ve completed your research, here are tips for writing the policy or procedure so there’s no room for misinterpretation:

  1. Use everyday words and phrases
  2. Use one- and two-syllable words when possible
  3. Rewrite wordy phrases. Use “because” instead of “the reason is …”
  4. Watch for redundancy. Use “each” or “every” instead of “each and every.”
  5. Make good use of transitions
  6. Delete unnecessary adjectives and modifiers
  7. Keep clauses and phrases short or break them into separate sentences
  8. Generally, keep sentences to 15 to 20 words at most
  9. Keep paragraphs short
  10. Use one-sentence paragraphs when appropriate
  11. Use bulleted lists
  12. Start with an action verb
  13. Use present tense
  14. Write in the active voice: Subject-verb-object construction
  15. 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. An unwritten rule can be a good thing under the right circumstances … until it’s not!

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