How-Tos of Technical Writing, Part 2

or, What is Policy and Why Is It Important?

Last week, we began our series on technical writing “how-tos”. Technical writing is a key piece of the internal communications puzzle. Without well-written and properly organized internal documentation, we’re more likely to get complete chaos than the results we profess to desire. We also pointed out that two key pieces of internal documentation are policies and procedures. Today, we’re going to talk specifically about policies.

Why must organizations have policies? What’s the purpose of policy? To put it very simply, policies benefit your organization by:

  • Codifying, or spelling out, goals and expectations;
  • Encouraging positive, beneficial behavior; and
  • Discouraging negative or detrimental behavior.

Spelling Out Goals and Expectations

In our policies, we spell out how we expect our organization, as a whole and as individuals – whether employees or contractors – to act in the course of fulfilling organizational goals and expectations. Often, we imply that the organization’s goals align, or agree with, those of customers.

Should we merely imply, though, that we’re in agreement with the customer? What if a customer wants us to do something that might – not a given that it will, but it might – cause us to compromise our ethics? What if fulfilling their requirement meant there was a potential for harm to another customer of ours? What if the potential for harm was extremely remote or, if someone was harmed, it was likely to happen to a little company that no one would notice? Would we decide to do what’s ethical or would we be inclined to take the money and keep quiet?

This is why we don’t want to leave much to the imagination in our policies. We have to be as clear about what we need and expect as we possibly can. (We can’t delay for the sake of perfection, though.)

Bad things do happen, though, even with good policies in place – that’s why we need to review our policies periodically. That’s also why we must teach all our employees and contractors the “ins and outs” of company policy when they come on board and on a regular basis thereafter, as well as when special situations arise.

To Discourage or Encourage?

More often than not, policies are written in response to an unanticipated, unplanned event – an employee’s mistake or willful violation of a business rule or social norm (like dabbling in social media on the company’s time). Because such a policy is developed and implemented after the fact, it is corrective in nature.

Sometimes, policies are developed in order to guide employees or contractors toward a preferred behavior or outcome, or even to prescribe the desired behavior, in advance. For example, an organization may have a policy that all blog posts are reviewed for spelling and grammar mistakes and for content accuracy, so that it is portrayed in the best possible light. Think of these kinds of policies as preventive in nature.

A caution regarding preventive, or “proactive”, policy – you should not make it too specific, because it can be restrictive. You risk stifling creativity and innovation, in that case. Furthermore, if your policy doesn’t explain why certain types of behavior are preferred or desired, expect more than the occasional lapse (or relapse). The easiest way to get someone – of any age – to do something is to tell them “Don’t do it!” without explanation. (Just ask your children.)

What don't you understand about "DON'T!"?

In Summary – What Should a Policy Be?

Your policies should be a reflection of your organization’s overall business philosophy. Your company’s mission and vision statements should shape your overall policy and inform the policies you have for each department or functional area.

Your policies should be clear, concise, and direct. Don’t take an entire page to say what you can say in a couple of sentences.

Above all, your policies should be unifying statements – they should ensure that everyone in your organization is “on the same page”. You cannot afford your functional areas to operate as if theirs is a unique experience – as if what they do has no effect whatsoever on other areas.

Our policies should ensure that all our employees and vendors are working toward the same, or complementary, goals.

What do your policies say about you?

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Posted in Better communication, Policies and Procedures, Policy development

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