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The most important thing to remember before your start speed-typing your new policy is this: policies are legally binding documents and words create obligations – both for the employee and the employer.

In the short term, the words in your policies establish the kind of commitments you want to see between your organisation, your staff and your stakeholders.

In the long term, those words create rules for your organisation – and they might come back to bite you in a court of law.

Someone with technical writing experience should draft your policy with advice from a person with technical expertise in the policy field. These are two important roles, and they don’t belong to just one person.

Think, consult and plan before writing policy.

    √    Take the time to consider what makes a good policy.
    √    Strategically set your objectives – for the whole policy as well as for each paragraph within it.
    √    Define who the audience is, what they care about, what they know and what they need to know.
    √    Be clear on the message you’re selling.
    √    Establish how this policy fits in with other policies, with procedures and with higher order documents such as legislation, codes of conduct, strategic plans etc. Your policy should be an adjunct to these documents without duplicating or contradicting them.

Plus, there are three big questions you need answers to before a word is written:

1. Is the policy technically and administratively achievable?
2. Is it affordable?
3. Does it support the interests of the stakeholders?


Avoid Absolute Language

When it comes to writing policy, there are 4 words you should blacklist from the start: will, shall, must and deem.

Language like this is dictatorial and rigid, as well as legally binding. It is difficult to police at the best of times and exhausting for an organisation to live up to. Rather than motivating workers, it aims to “control and command” and can prompt adversarial behaviour.

Absolute language shuts the door in your staff’s face. It tells staff the rules have been set and their only role is to comply. It leaves no room for them to bring their perspective, potential or judgement to a given scenario.

In the worst of cases, if the organisation or its staff act against such absolute instructions – even for excellent reasons – it could see either party being sued for breach of policy. And that’s the stuff of organisational nightmares.

What policy should do is imply obligation, not impose directives. In place of those 4 words, use phrases such as:

    √    “may be required”
    √    “is necessary”
    √    “is encouraged to”
    √    “should exercise discretion”

When things aren’t going according to plan, and you need staff to use their adult common sense, absolute language leaves your staff hamstrung by ruling out possibilities for creativity and initiative.

For example, let’s say that your Vehicle Policy reads, “Under no circumstances should workers drive a company vehicle without a second driver.” In the event of an accident in a remote location with a flat satellite phone, no passing traffic and a seriously injured passenger thrown from the vehicle, this one sentence compromises the able-bodied staff member. While that might seem like an “open and shut” case of common sense to you, no matter how hard you try, you can’t rearrange the letters in “common sense” to spell “consensus”!

Policy should be worded to allow staff to “break” it when there are reasonable grounds to do so. Instead, your solo driving rule could say that – “under normal circumstances” or “to the best of their efforts” – drivers should be accompanied in their vehicle.

Absolute language also excludes natural justice and procedural fairness. It stops staff from using their discretion in complex circumstances.

When policy says staff “must not” purchase alcohol on a company credit card, then it’s warranted to pursue a worker who bought a six pack to drink in their hotel room on a work trip. But is it fair to punish a worker whose abusive partner threatened them and forced them to spend $400 on grog? In this case, substituting the phrase “must not” with “should not” offers senior staff discretion to assess the so-called misdemeanor.

These small nuances of flexibility in your policies work to invite your staff to contribute, rather than setting their options in concrete.


Policy Dos

    √    Include what, when and who in your policy, but always leave the how to the Procedures Manual.
    √    Include ways to measure and monitor results (like revising the Complaints Register).
    √    Include guidance for policy review processes, which should be fully consultative with all stakeholders.
    √    Include an education and training component, which covers the steps of tell > show > do > review.
    √    Use simple words and concepts – don’t use acronyms unless you spell them out first.
    √    Write in plain English – everyone – yes, everyone – needs to understand who is responsible for what.
    √    Use the active voice. Put the agent before the action, and make the task clear, accountable and easily measurable e.g. The manager shares HR information with staff (not HR information is shared with staff).

Policy Don’ts

  • Don’t include specific dates or precise commitments – because then something like coronavirus happens and your organisation is caught out; in some circumstances, this could have legal ramifications.
  • Avoid names of people, organisations or job titles. These change, so use generic indicators.
  • Avoid threatening disciplinary action – it’s implicit and should be covered in the Code of Conduct.


Remember, the point of policy is to set out the guidelines for the organisation you want to be. The exact words you use can either open or limit the structure and the nature of your relationship with workers and stakeholders.

Invest in the best outcome by pre-planning your document such that your policies express what is at the heart of your work.

If you want more tips and tools to tailor your organisation’s processes to meet its greatest visions, follow this link and I’ll keep in touch.