Policies of Confusion

On May 14, 2010, in Language, by Rob Levandowski

Are you responsible for writing policies at your company? Whether you’re writing them for the entire company or just your own group, are you writing effective policies?

Too often, I’ve seen business policies at are very poorly written. They aren’t comprehensible, or they say things they don’t mean. If you ever have to tell people “I know the policy says that, but it doesn’t mean that,” you have a bad policy that needs rewriting.

Rule 1: Use as few words as possible. Extra words produce confusion. Try rewetting your policy to eliminate as many words as you can without changing the meaning of the document. Enlist good writers to help you. Legislators follow a fundamental legal principle that every word in a law must be interpreted as if it’s part of the law for a reason. Your policy is a law within your company. Follow the same principle in your policies.

Rule 2: Use care when using terms. Be sure the term means what you think it means. This is especially true if you’re using a term that may have a very precise, technical meaning among members of your audience. If you misuse terms, assuming people will know what you really meant, you will write a policy that enforces rules you never wanted.

Rule 3: Be reasonable. Any military officer will tell you the truth of the old maxim, “Never give an order that you know will not be followed.” Before declaring a new policy, find out if it will be so onerous to your business that no one will follow it. There’s no point in publishing policies that will go unused from day one.

Rule 4: Watch out for unintended consequences. Check the impact of your policy with the people who will be affected. If your wordings overly broad or inappropriately narrow, you may end up restricting activities that are important to running your business smoothly. For example, you may have a legitimate need to restrict employee use of cellular phones, but a poorly worded cellphone policy could keep your information-technology employees from being able to receive and respond to urgent equipment failure pages sent to their BlackBerries.

Rule 6: Don’t assume that you’re a good writer. Very few people are good writers. Your organization undoubtedly has a few, and they probably have jobs at aren’t primarily about writing. Seek them out, befriend them, and get their help saying what you mean to say. If the policy will affect them, they’ll probably have a lot of intrinsic motivation to help you.

Poorly written policies infuriate employees and create resentment. They also make the company look bad. Neither one of these things is good for a manager.

It should go without saying that these rules are even more critical when you’re writing policies that impact customers. Employees have to deal with your poor policies, unless they are willing to quit and find employment elsewhere. Customers, however, can very easily take their business elsewhere, and they will rarely tell you that they’ve abandoned you because they found your policies asinine.


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