Ambiguity When Using “Should”

“Should” is a word policy writers reach for to convey some kind of moral imperative instead of a requirement. Moral imperatives are not appropriate content in a policy instrument.
The word “should” is often found in policy statements like the following:
“Employees should change their passwords every 90 days.”
That statement is meaningless in a rule-based context. Since the action is not mandatory, an employee cannot be disciplined for not following it.

regulations, guidelines and compliance titles on three red dice

Technically, something that is permitted but not mandatory is “optional,” but the writer didn’t want to use that word here because it sounds too weak.
Taken at its strongest, the password-changing statement is but a wishy-washy plea to do the right thing without making it a rule; at its weakest the statement is nothing more than a declaration of a best practice, and best practices belong in guidance documents.
In other words, a well-written policy either expressly mandates a practice, permits it, or prohibits it. What it doesn’t do is sit on the fence.

More Policy Writing Tips


For more information

You’ll find information on writing titles for policy instruments and many related topics in Respectful Policies and Directives, available at any bookstore.

Perfect offers workshops that help you organize your policy instruments. Contact us for details.

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Lewis S. Eisen

Lewis has over 35 years’ experience in law, technology, government, and adult education.

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