Is It Time To Write a Rule?

Leisha DeHart-Davis (AKA Green Tape Doctor) is an associate professor in the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration. She conducts research on effective organizational rules, which she refers to as “green tape.” Feel free to email her with your questions on creating effective rules for public sector organizations (

I once interviewed a public manager who told me, “I decide to write a rule when I’m becoming stressed from people coming into my office with the same issue or problem.”

The manager’s comment suggests that rules can solve workplace problems. But when to write a rule is sometimes unclear: on the one hand, managers need administrative capacity to empower action. On the other hand, they do not want excessive bureaucracy in their workplaces.

How do you know when a written rule is needed? Here are three questions to ask:

* What is the worst that will happen if you do not write a rule? Answering this question is a good way to figure out whether a workplace issue is important enough to write a rule. If the worst-case scenario is likely and imposes unacceptable costs on organizational integrity or operational effectiveness, then a written rule may be in order.

* Are you clear on rule objectives? Written rules are well-suited to clear objectives. Even general objectives – reduced personal Internet usage or increased employee professionalism – greatly simplify rule-writing and help focus the rule on what you are trying to accomplish.

* What is causing the issue? Written rules are like the practice of medicine: prescribing the remedy requires diagnosing the ailment. Take time to investigate the causes of a workplace issue before formulating the rule. If the issue pertains to depleted sick leave, talk to employees to find out what’s going on. Written rules are more effective when designed with root causes in mind.

If the worst-case scenario is unacceptable and if you have clear rule objectives and a good grasp on root causes, then your workplace problem is a good candidate for a written rule.

Is there a workplace issue that you solved using a written rule? What was it?