No Need to Word Your Corporate Policies More Harshly than the Penal Code

I often come across policies that read something like this:

“Employees must answer every question before submitting request forms. Incomplete forms will be returned.”

When we set rules for other people, which of these reactions are we hoping for: willing cooperation or coerced obedience? Too often, judging by the wording of the rule, it seems to be the latter.

But aggressive wording is so counter-productive. It can unnecessarily antagonize a reader and is more likely to provoke resentment than to improve the likelihood of compliance.

Moreover, it’s unnecessary. Even the strictest wording around mandatory requirements can be set out plainly and unambiguously without ever resorting to dictatorial language like “you must” and “everyone shall.”

The most straightforward and respectful drafting style for setting out your decisions in policies, directives, and other rules documents is an informative statement written in the simple present tense. This approach gives us lots of options:

“Request forms are processed once the information is complete.”
“Only those request forms with complete information are forwarded for processing.”
“Request forms missing information are returned for completion.”
and so on

We need to proceed on the premise that adults know they will be held responsible for their own actions and we therefore do not need to treat them like children. We can simply tell them what each rule is, without also ordering them to comply with it.

Some people disagree. They argue that policies and directives will be taken seriously by their employees and customers only when they sound like stern orders. They believe that a statement without the word “must” will be perceived as a request rather than a requirement, and therefore be ineffective.

The evidence proves otherwise.

From my perspective as a lawyer, the rules in society requiring the most uncompromising wording are the criminal laws — you know, those rules prohibiting murder, treason, arson…all the nasty stuff. How are those laws worded? Do they read “Murder is strictly forbidden” or “Arson will not be tolerated”? Do they use terms like “must,” as in “People must not assault other people”?

No. In fact, for the most part, the criminal laws are worded very respectfully. South Dakota’s wording around the crime of arson (Codified Laws 22-33-9.1) is a perfect example:

“Any person who starts a fire or causes an explosion with the intent to destroy any occupied structure of another is guilty of first degree arson. First degree arson is a Class 2 felony.”

That’s it. Plain and direct. It’s informative and straight-forward. It uses the simple present tense to convey its message. There’s no authoritarian tone of voice, no aggressiveness, no Parent–Child dynamic, no finger-wagging. Its overtones convey an acknowledgement that you are an adult and can make your own decisions.

A separate paragraph in the South Dakota legislation informs us of the maximum penalty authorized for non-compliance with the prohibition of arson. It, too, is written in language that doesn’t sound heavy-handed or bossy. It simply sets out the facts.

In fact, 80% of the state penal codes in the US take this approach.* The vast majority of US states have penal codes that manage to set strict rules, prohibit activity, and (literally) lay down the law, all without coming across like an emperor issuing decrees.

I am proud to say that in Canada, 100% of the criminal laws take the same approach! (Of course, that statistic becomes a little less impressive when you take into account the fact that Canada has one single Criminal Code and it applies nationally; nonetheless, it’s another good example of respectful wording.)

The bottom line is that we are confronted with a rather absurd situation. In most jurisdictions, the strictest laws for the most heinous crimes are worded more respectfully than many policies directed at corporate employees and customers.

In fact, comparing the wording of different rules while paying attention to their tone of voice, it would be understandable how someone might conclude that setting a fire or causing an explosion isn’t half as serious an offence as failing to complete the request form properly.

The use of “must,” “shall,” and other heavy-handed wordings are a vestige of the old authoritarian approach to managing people. They come from a time before the flattening of the social hierarchy and the advent of modern leadership skills.

Today, command-and-control leadership doesn’t cut it. We seek cooperation from our employees and customers, not obedience. We want to motivate them to do the right thing, not intimidate them into avoiding the wrong thing. (See How Human Resources Leaders Can Be Business Pioneers, by Carol Ring.)

Adults often hear commands and orders as an implied statement that their input and point of view is not important. That interpretation leads to a lack of engagement and resistance, which is exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve with our rules and policies. When our goal is to inspire cooperation rather than to exact obedience, we need to make sure that the language of our policies and rules clearly supports that goal.

The good news is that this situation is easily remedied. We simply need to keep this issue on our radar.

* The penal codes found to be using this approach exclusively are AK, AL, AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, IN, ME, MI, MO, ND, NE, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, SD, TN, TX, UT, WA, WI, and WY. The penal codes found to be using this approach predominantly are GA, HI, IA, ID, IL, KS, KY, LA, MN, MT, NV, PA, and SC. For a detailed look at the data used to support these statements, see Results of a Review of Verb Tenses in US State Penal Laws.


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