Transcript of Video Perfect Policies How to Write Rules

When I was a little boy we would sit around the dinner table and my parents had a rule: If you didn’t eat the main course including the vegetables, you didn’t get dessert.

Did you have the same rule?

We all grew up with rules our parents gave us and our teachers gave us
so by the time when we get into the business world we are very used to having rules.

Business has a lot of rules. They might call them “policies” or “terms and conditions” or “standards” but basically they’re rules for other people to follow.

Now I have nothing against rules. I practiced law for a while. I made my money from rules. And for ten years I worked for the government writing administrative policies. We need rules in our society to keep from bumping into each other—literally as well as figuratively.

The problem is that too many of these rules are written disrespectfully.
Let me show you what I mean.

Take a look at these two policy statements. On the left:  “All employees must submit vacation requests at least one week in advance. Any requests not submitted on time may be refused.”; the one on the right: “Requests for vacation are granted when submitted at least one week in advance.”

Now can everyone see the difference in those two statements? Raise your hand if you hear the difference in the tone of voice in those two statements. Great.

So I’m going to talk to you today about why, if everybody in this room can see the difference between these two statements, why are businesses still wording policies like they do on the left? I’m gonna talk about why that’s happening and why it’s important to change that.

A few years ago I was the head of a corporate services department in a large government organization. I arrived there and they said to me, 
“We have a terrible compliance problem and people just aren’t listening.”

So you know what they did to try and fix it? They rewrote the policies and made them sound harder and harsher and sterner. And they used a lot of absolute words like “never” and “always” and “no exceptions” with lots of bold and underline and italics, and SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS with an exclamation mark!!!! You know a sentence in all caps is a very serious rule.

Now, was the level of compliance increased after that? No. of course not.

It’s like a little dog that keeps barking loudly to try and scare you because it doesn’t have anything behind it. What it did was engender resentment. The louder the policy barked, the more people resisted it.

People need to feel that the wording of the policy is respectful.

If you look at the wording on the left here, the people who wrote this have a problem. There’s a subtle—but clearly perceptible—tone of frustration in this message. These people have been asked to handle vacations late one too many times, and they’re tired of telling people. They’re frustrated about it.

Now I get it. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been in a situation where we have rules and people aren’t following the rules and we get frustrated. Everyone been there? Yeah, everybody here’s been there, thank you.

But how many of you believe that it’s acceptable for that frustration to appear in the policy statement? No one.

Well written policies—what I call Perfect Policies—are clear, succinct, and respectful. Well worded policies—Perfect Policies—do not reveal the organization’s problems. Perfect Policies do not sound like parents scolding their children.

I have a friend who heard me give this talk, and he disagrees with me. He’s a policeman, and he said, “That would never work in my organization. We are a command-and-control organization. We are paramilitary. The rules have to sound strict or nobody’s going to follow them.”

Have you ever met a boss like that? Show me, have you met a boss like that, who says, “If the rules aren’t strict enough, people will ignore them”?

A lot of people think that way.  Is that right, though?

Well, you know what…I went to look at what the strictest rules in the country are. You know what the strictest rules are? The criminal laws. The penal laws, The laws against murder, against kidnapping, against treason— you know, the real bad stuff. 

How are those laws worded? Do they say, “Kidnapping is strictly forbidden”? “People must never murder each other”?

No, that’s not how they’re worded. They’re actually worded very simply,
informatively, and respectfully: “A person who commits murder is guilty of an offense.” “A person who commits assault is liable for imprisonment for up to ten years.”

They don’t talk down to you. They don’t wag their finger at you. They’re not scolding you. They’re simple, informative sentences; and yet, we still believe that it’s a serious crime.

So we now have a situation where the strictest laws for the most heinous crimes in the country are worded more respectfully than most organizations’ policies.

In fact, if you were to believe the tone of voice of the policy, you would think that murdering your boss isn’t half as bad as not replacing the empty toner cartridge in the photocopier.

Now why does it sound like this? The people who wrote this on the left, they never learned to write policies.

This is a common occurrence in both government and private industry. In  my experience 95% of people who write policies have never been trained to do so. All operational areas—accounting, finance, HR, IT—all those areas, they take people who are experts in their field and they task them with writing rules, whether or not they’ve been trained to do that.

You know where they learned to write rules? Where did you learn to write rules? Same place I learned to write rules: from our parents at the dinner table, from our teachers at school. “Don’t do this!” and “Stop doing that!”
and “Don’t ever let me catch you doing that!”

What we learned is that rules should sound bossy. But, in fact, what our parents were modelling for us at the time is how adults in charge make rules for children not how adults make rules for other adults, and that’s a very different skill. And there’s no reason why policy
writers can’t learn to apply the same tone of voice that legislators apply
when making the strict rules; policy writers should be able to do that in the

So that’s what we did in my government department. We did a number of
things—my book is Respectful Policies and Directives, and I have several
chapters in there on a variety of things you can do to make policies easier to
follow—and one of the things was to change the tone of voice. 

You know what happened? People reacted very positively. Instead of saying, “We shouldn’t have to follow that because we’re different,” they would say,  “How do we apply that in our situation?”

They started going to the policymakers as if they were the experts and asking for help.

This put the policy writers in a very different position. They weren’t playing the heavy anymore. They had, in fact, recast their role; they had managed to change the dynamic from parent/child to adult/adult, and by doing so had set them up as expert professionals in the office.

Now a lot of people think that this on the left is the way to write it. In many
cases, though, it just happened because nobody was paying attention. It was just by accident; it was unintentional. They put their minds to what they were saying and not how they said it. It just wasn’t on anybody’s radar. No one was responsible for looking at the tone of voice.

But you know what happens in that case? The whole organization wears it.

A woman named Karen came to me and said that whenever she applies for a job she asks to see the company’s policies. She wants to see how they’re talking to the employees, and if she doesn’t like the way they talk to the employees she’s not going to work there.

Now you know good employees are hard to find.  And a person who does their due diligence before they apply for a job asking to see the policies, that’s exactly the kind of person that you want working for you. 

That’s exactly the kind of person you’re going to lose if your policies turn them away. And you know what the worst thing is? You’ll never know it. You won’t know she was there, you won’t know she left,
and you won’t know why. How many Karens have you lost in the last year without knowing it?

Now the good news is this is easy to fix. You just have to want to. I work with companies all the time. We go over the policies, we review what we  have, we adjust them. We teach the people there how to go forward and write policies and set them up in a way that in the future their policies all have a respectful tone of voice.

The organizations, they believe in respect in the workplace. I believe in respect in the workplace, the same as I believe in respect in my home. Just as you believe in respect, I treat people respectfully the same way you would treat people respectfully. It’s the way I want to be treated.

If you ever come to dinner at my house, I will very respectfully tell you that I’m happy to give you dessert, once you’ve finished eating your vegetables.

Now doesn’t that sound better?