Word Choice – Must or Should: Policies and Procedures

Phil’s question: “I have been asked to write a policy for our department. I am not sure when to use ‘should’ or ‘must.’ Can you please explain the difference?”

BizWritingTip response: A number of organizations seem to be writing or rewriting their policies and procedures nowadays, and this is a common question. The two words imply different things. Most organizations use the following definitions:

Must = mandates
Should = ought to

Employees who are absent for two days or more must provide a doctor’s note. (This rule must be followed.)
Employees who are absent for two days or more should provide a doctor’s note. (It is recommended that they do so, but employees may get away without the note.)

“Should” is considered a hedging word in policies and procedures. But it is not always bad. It can help you make your policy flexible and reduces your need to spell out everything.

Employees should make every attempt to solve the problem on their own. If they are unable to do so and the problem appears to be escalating, they may refer the issue to their supervisor.
(The writer does not describe what attempts or how many are to be made before going for help. He or she has left it to the discretion of the employee.)

We have conducted several workshops on policy and procedures over the past few months. Every participant receives a detailed workbook plus a laminated tip sheet. You can download your own copy of our handy tip sheet for Policies and Procedures if you wish.