Policy Engagement Starts With Policy Writing

Policy engagement: There is a lot to be said for how technology can make policies easier to find, social, and interactive. In fact, I have been on my soapbox proclaiming next-generation policy and training management for the past decade in which organizations deploy a portal that brings together policies, training, and related resources in one integrated interface that is intuitive and engaging for employees to use. 

Policies define boundaries for the behavior of individuals, business processes, relationships, and systems. At the highest level, policy starts with a code of conduct, establishes ethics and values to extend across the enterprise, and authorizes other policies to govern the entire organization. These filter down into specific policies for business units, departments, and individual business processes. 

To deliver engaging policy requires a firm foundation. We might be quick to think this foundation is technology itself. No. Technology is important, but the foundation for good policy is a well-written policy. A policy that is clear, void of cluttered language, written in the active voice, and delivers the message. 

The typical organization is a mess when it comes to policies. Policies are scattered across the organization, reside in a variety of formats ranging from printed documents to internal portals and fileshares, are out of date and poorly written. Policy writing that is wordy and confusing is damaging to the corporate image and leads to confusion and misunderstanding, which then costs time and money. Organizations are not positioned to drive desired behaviors or enforce accountability if policies are not clearly written and consistent. 

Well-written and presented policies aid in improving performance, producing predicable outcomes, mitigating compliance risk, and avoiding incidents and loss. Good policy writing and layout: 

  • Articulates corporate culture 
  • Shows that the organization cares about policy 
  • Demonstrates professionalism 
  • Avoids expensive misunderstandings 
  • Aids those that struggle with reading or do not speak the language natively 
  • Provides consistency across policies 

Consider a supply chain code of conduct I was asked to review for a global brand with thousands of suppliers. This code of conduct had long paragraphs that were written in the passive voice and not active voice. It was cluttered with unnecessary and complex language. The audience for this code of conduct is an international audience of whom many did not speak the language of the code of conduct as their native tongue. Further, the first sentence of the first paragraph stated “Company believes …” and the next paragraph began, “Company strongly believes …” Do we have different levels of belief in the code of conduct? 

We are working against ourselves when we deliver such rubbish. As a native English speaker this might be quick to glance over, but for someone that has English as a second language, they will analyze every word and come to the erroneous conclusion that the second paragraph is more important than the first. Organizations are full of individuals who are not native speakers (or in this case readers) of the language policies are written in. We do them a disservice when we write policy that is not clear and to the point. 

Good policy writing is not just about clear and concise language but also about layout and design. How we structure paragraphs and present them in print or digital form matters. 

I have three sons; two are now adults and the third is in his last year of high school. The oldest and youngest do well academically. My middle son is very reliable and can be counted on to get things done but has struggled academically. He is brilliant but has been plagued with a learning disability—dyslexia—his whole life. In educating him, my wife and I tried a variety of options. I remember giving him something to read that was a page of nearly solid text in just a few paragraphs. He struggled to get through it. I then gave him the same text broken out into many paragraphs with plenty of white space between them. His comprehension of the text skyrocketed with the revised version. The text itself did not change, simply the presentation of it. 

When we break policies out into shorter paragraphs and utilize white space it aids in the comprehension of the policy. White space, and in that context design and layout of the policy, is just as important as the actual written words of the policy. 

Critical to the success of policy engagement is a policy style guide. Every organization should have a policy style guide in place to provide clear and consistent policy. This establishes the language, grammar, and format guidance to writing policies. It expresses how to use active over passive voice, avoid complicated language and “legalese,” how to write for impact and clarity, use of common terms, how to approach gender in writing, and even internationalization considerations. 

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