Robert’s Rules of Order: Simplified Beginner’s Guide - iBabs

Robert’s Rules of Order: Simplified Beginner’s Guide

Robert’s Rules of Order, also known as Robert’s Rules or RONR come from a book written by Henry Martyn Robert. Originally published in 1876, there have been 12 editions since with the latest up to date version published in September 2020. Henry Robert himself completed the fourth revised edition before his death in 1923.

The procedures in this manual were created to conduct orderly parliamentary meetings and considering the rights of:

  • The majority
  • The minority (especially if bigger than a third)
  • Individual members
  • Absentee members
  • All groups together

Today, RONR is the most commonly-used book on parliamentary procedure in the United States, gaining more and more popularity all around the world.

What are Robert’s Rules of Order?

Generally speaking, RONR is a set of strictly defined procedures that can be applied to many meeting situations. The premise is that a chairperson allows everyone to voice their opinions, and everyone is seen, heard and considered. 

As the 11th edition of RONR says,

 “The application of parliamentary law is the best method yet devised to enable assemblies of any size, with due regard for every member’s opinion, to arrive at the general will on the maximum number of questions of varying complexity in a minimum amount of time and under all kinds of internal climate ranging from total harmony to hardened or impassioned division of opinion.”

Today, Robert’s Rules are used for:

  • Parliamentary rules and proper procedures
  • Bringing discussions to closure
  • Making informed decisions in a formal setting
  • Dispute resolution

These can be applied to most meeting situations from PTAs to large-scale board meetings. Interestingly, some American by-laws mandate the usage of Robert’s Rules. This is quite common in volunteer meetings in the US. Such by-laws can also be applied to businesses, committees and boards globally. 

Why are Robert’s Rules important? 

There are some key benefits to using Robert’s Rules. We’ll move on shortly to the specifics, but, generally, adhering to the rules can make meetings flow smoother and stay on track while also helping keep all documents up-to-date.

Preparing an agenda in advance will also allow everyone involved in the meeting to know what they can expect when walking in. This is useful as it will save the meeting from going off-course. It also prevents dominant personalities or those with louder voices from taking over.

But, more than that, the main benefit of using Robert’s Rules is to help everyone’s voices and opinions get heard. This is particularly important in situations where there is a minority or a large-scale vote of individuals. 

A basic understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order

Now that we’ve covered some of the history and background, we can start to look at the specifics of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Basic principles

The basic principles of Robert’s Rules are crucial. They are the backbone of many of the other rules that you’ll find in the book. If there’s a situation where you’re on the spot and can’t remember a specific rule, using the basic principles as a common-sense guideline is a good place to start.

  1. All members have equal rights, privileges and obligations. Everyone has the right to be heard.
  2. Only one item of business or question can be taken up at any time. This gives the chance for a full and fair discussion, dissuades topic tangents and maintains order.
  3. The majority vote rules. However, this doesn’t mean the rights of every individual aren’t protected.
  4. An impartial chairperson must be present.

These principles ensure that everyone is heard and that any debate, question or vote can be conducted as fairly as possible. All of the rules of order support the principles. Some key examples include:

  • ‘No member speaks twice about a motion until all members have had the opportunity to speak.’
  • ‘Only one main motion can be pending at a time.’
  • ‘Each meeting follows an order of business called an agenda. Everything on the agenda is reviewed in its order and disposed of before members go on to the next item.’

Basic definitions

In Robert’s Rules, there are a lot of definitions and fundamentals to remember. Below, we’ve added definitions to some of the most common terms, with examples to remember.

Motion

A motion is a formal proposal by a member of the group. In simple terms, they can help form decision-making processes. Usually, this starts with the phrase “I move”. For example, “I move that we build a new play park in our neighbourhood.” This then opens the ‘motion’ up for debate and discussion.

Second

To ‘second’ a motion means that another member of the group agrees with the motion and would also like for it to be considered. “I second the motion”.

Amendment

An amendment can be added to a motion before it can be voted on. There are a few ways it can be amended such as:

  • removing words
  • adding words
  • swapping words – removing and adding a new word in its place
  • substituting a paragraph for another

However, it’s not possible to amend a motion by simply rejecting it. 

Quorum

A quorum is the minimum number of voting members who need to be present for any business to be conducted ‘in the name of the group’. The quorum is generally a majority of members. It’s not possible to take votes on business unless the quorum is there.

President/Chair

The president or chairperson of the organisation or movement should be present at the meeting. This person is usually an elected officer of the organisation. It’s their job to lead the meetings, but they can’t debate or submit their own motion.

By-laws

A by-law is a regulation made by a local authority, government body or business.

Officers

Officers are members of the group that hold additional duties and responsibilities. Often, they’re sitting members of the group. This means they can make motions, discuss and vote. The exception to this is when an officer turns into a president or chairperson. At a minimum, an organisation should have two officers — the president and a secretary.

Committees

A committee is a group of people appointed or elected to make decisions on behalf of an organisation. This can include a Board of Trustees or Directors or a standing committee.

Types of meetings according to Robert’s Rules

If you need a definition for your committee or meeting, Robert’s Rules have a range of meeting styles and definitions

Formal meetings

Meeting typeDefinition
Annual meetingsThe meeting of an organisation that has only one meeting a year OR a meeting of an organisation that occurs annually, with other meetings taking part throughout the year.
Regular meetingsWhile ‘regularly’ is a lax term, it can be used to cover any meeting which is held at regular similar intervals: weekly, monthly, quarterly.
Adjourned meetingsA continuation of a meeting. This can be between meetings when the agenda or regular business of the previous meeting hasn’t been covered.
Executive sessionsThis is a meeting that’s closed to all but members of the organisation.
Special meetingsAlso known as a called meeting. A separate meeting held outside the time of a regular meeting.
SessionsA session is a series of meetings around a single debate, motion or order of business.
ConventionsA convention is usually a large assembly of people chosen from the organisation as representatives. A convention is normally annual, as it can last up to a week.
Mass meetingsThis is a meeting of an unorganised large assembly. 

Informal meetings

Informal meetings are for groups with less than twelve members. Unlike meetings with a larger number of attendees, informal meetings don’t have to address the chairperson or stand up and ‘obtain the floor’. They can also discuss, debate and share ideas before motions are made.

Meeting typeDefinition
Board meetingsOnly under the ‘informal meetings’ definition when under twelve members. Larger board meetings come under the same rules as formal meetings or deliberative assemblies. 
Committee meetingsUsually a bit different from formal meetings (when under twelve members) because the chairperson can act as a secretary. They can make motions, debate or vote.

The role of the chair

The chairperson’s role is critical to the efficacy of Robert’s Rules and to running a successful meeting. The chair is normally an elected officer of the organisation or assembly, and he or she has a set of responsibilities to fulfil as the person in charge of the meeting. Usually, they’re referred to as Mr, Madam or Chair.

As part of this role, there are some essential rules to follow:

  • You should set goals for the meeting, discussion or vote.
  • You must be and remain impartial and neutral.
  • You should take control of the meeting.
  • You should ensure that the rights of all members are protected.
  • You cannot take part in motions, debates or votes (unless in specific situations).

The responsibilities of the chairperson throughout the meeting include:

  • Opening the session by announcing the purpose and topic of the meeting, as well as calling members to order.
  • Recognising the members to speak and giving them ‘the floor’.
  • Facilitating and announcing the results of any votes.
  • Keeping disruptions and distractions to a minimum.
  • Keeping the direction of the meeting on the topic according to the agenda.
  • Protecting the ‘minority’ from any disruptive behaviour from the majority.

The role of the secretary

As mentioned above, Robert’s Rules suggest that all meetings have at least two elected officers: a presiding officer/chairman and a secretary. The presence of the secretary is crucial to the success of the meetings. 

Robert’s Rules state that the secretary role includes the following key duties:

  • Taking minutes as a record of the meeting, submitting for approval and circulating when approved.
  • Looking after and managing records, reports and official correspondence.
  • Keeping the bylaws, rules and minutes for reference to support the chairperson as needed.
  • Preparing the agenda, order of business and relevant notes for the chairperson

What are motions? 

We covered previously how a motion is a formal proposal by a member of the group. However, there are several types of motions that are crucial to making the most of Robert’s Rules. Take a look at the below types of motion and their definitions to learn more.

This is how Robert’s Rules work at a motor club

The main motion

The main motion is the main topic that’s being discussed, with no other motions pending. A main motion, according to the official Robert’s Rules:

  • requires a second motion
  • is debatable
  • may be reconsidered
  • is amendable
  • requires a vote (a two-thirds vote to form a majority to pass the motion)

There are two types of main motion: (1) An original main motion that introduces a question as a new subject and (2)  an incidental main motion that can be used to ratify action, adopt recommendations or adjourn/recess while a main motion isn’t pending.

Subsidiary motions

Subsidiary motions are motions that deal with the main motion before voting on the main motion itself. Ranked lowest to highest in order of precedence, the seven subsidiary motions are:

  • Postpone indefinitely — to end the discussion on the main motion and any outstanding subsidiary motions for the remaining period of the meeting, without a vote on the motion.
  • Amend — to change the main motion. 
  • Commit or refer — to send the main motion and any pending subsidiary motions to a committee for consideration.
  • Postpone (including postponing definitely, or postpone) — to delay the consideration of the main motion and any pending subsidiary motions.
  • Limit or extend limits of debate — to change limitations on number or length of speeches, after rules have been previously adopted. For example, on 2-minute discussion times.
  • Previous question — to close the debate, preclude any further amendments and vote immediately.
  • Lay on the table — to end consideration of the main motion and any pending subsidiary motions, allowing for urgent business to be considered.

Incidental motions

When it comes to incidental motions, the Newly Revised Robert’s Rules mention the following:

  • Appeal the decision of the chair
  • Consideration by paragraph or seriatim
  • Division of a question
  • Division of the assembly
  • Motions relating to nominations
  • Motions relating to methods of voting and the pools
  • Objection to the consideration of a question
  • Point of order
  • Request to be excused from a duty
  • Suspend the rules

Most of these are undebatable. 

There are also requests and inquiries:

  • Request for information
  • Request for permission to withdraw, modify or amend a motion
  • Request to read papers
  • Request for any other privilege

Unlike privileged or subsidiary motions, there is no order of precedence with incidental motions. However, any incidental motion takes precedence over any pending question.

Privileged motions

A privileged motion grants precedence over normal business. This is because it’s something to do with great importance or urgency. These motions aren’t debatable unless a question of privilege is raised.

Ranked lowest to highest in precedence:

  1. Set a time to adjourn
  2. Adjourn, unless adjournment would dissolve the assembly
  3. Take a recess
  4. Raise a question of privilege
  5. Call for orders of the day

Debate 

Debates are a crucial element of the process, and there are two types of debate when relating to motions — debatable and undebatable motions. We explore these below.

Undebatable motions

We’ll start with undebatable motions, as they are the easiest to define. Generally speaking, undebatable motions crossover well with unanimous consent (which is up shortly!) A lot of group business should fall in this category — it shouldn’t be up for a long, time-consuming debate and simply needs a ‘yay’ or a ‘nay’. So, in these cases, undebatable motions can be a quick vote before moving on to the next point in the agenda.

Debatable motions

Unlike undebatable motions, debatable motions can be discussed and debated before going to a vote. Below is a list from Robert’s Rules outlining which motions are debatable and some notes on each one. Anything not on this list can be considered undebatable. 

MotionNotes
Main motionsDebate is only limited by rules on the number of speeches or the length that each person can speak for.
Postpone indefinitelyCan discuss the merits of the main motion.
AmendLimited to the merits of the (proposed) amendment. However, this becomes undebatable if the underlying motion is also undebatable.
CommitLimit debate only to the merits of the commitment.
Postpone to a certain timeDebate limited to the merits of postponing including the detail of when it will be postponed until.
AppealLimited to the matter of the appeal.
Request to be excused from dutyNot limited, because it’s important to acknowledge and gain the detail of the individual merits of the request. They’re, by their nature, unique.
Rescind or amend Discussion limited to the merits of the subject.
ReconsiderDiscussion limited to the merits of the subject unless the motion itself is undebatable.

Voting according to Robert’s Rules

The voting process is integral to Robert’s Rules of Order. After debate and discussion have been had and no one else has risen to take the floor, the voting process can begin. According to Robert’s Rules, voting goes as such:

  • The chair rises and asks “Are you ready for the question?” It is not necessary to rise in an informal setting.
  • If no one rises to speak, object or bring further debate, the vote can begin.
  • If someone does rise to speak, the debate should continue. Once it ends, the question can be asked again.

Remember: according to Robert’s Rules, no one can speak a second time until everyone has spoken on the topic (should they wish to).

Often, the vote is taken by either a show of hands for each side, a rising vote (standing up to show support rather than raising a hand), an anonymous ballot or “yaes and naes”.

Once the vote has been taken and it’s clear, the chair can then announce the result by saying (for example) “The ayes have it” or “The affirmative has the vote”. It’s important then for the chair to clarify what this means. If the vote is in favour of the motion, the chair then needs to say what will happen next, and what business comes next.

Eyes and no’se?

What is unanimous consent? 

One of the best ways of staying on track with your meeting agenda is to use unanimous consent wherever possible to expedite the discussion and the debate process. While not applicable to all motions, some topics aren’t controversial — meaning that most members will be in agreement. 

Of course, only the presiding officer can move to vote directly in this way. Instead of opening up a topic for debate, the presiding officer could say “If there is no objection, [subject] is approved.” In the case where some members do want to open up the discussion before voting, one member can say “I object” prior to the vote. Then, the presiding officer would have to open up the discussion and get votes from both sides of the debate. 

Officers can also clarify those for and against the motion quickly with a show of hands. The officer could ask for everyone to raise their hands if they want to speak in favour of or against a certain motion. If it’s clear that everyone is for or everyone is against the motion, the chairperson can ask for an opposition speaker. If there isn’t anyone who wants to speak for the opposition, then they can ask to move directly to the vote.

How to adopt Robert’s Rules in your organisation 

Adopting all of the rules overnight may seem like a big ask. But, you can start with baby steps to bring them into your organisation. 

While a chairperson might strike up visions of a man with a gavel and a secretary frantically typing behind him, the modern-day version that’s applicable to businesses is much different.

To start gently bringing in Robert’s Rules of Order, try the following small steps:

  • Set an agenda for your meetings and circulate it to the participants before it begins.
  • The person in charge — i.e. the Manager or CEO — can become your effective ‘chair’. This person goes through the agenda point-by-point and gives the opportunity for the participants to bring up a point related to that topic.
  • If someone proposes to do something, turn this into a ‘motion’. Remember, another participant must ‘second’ (or agree with) this motion.
  • The chairperson then speaks this motion out loud to all, and everyone has the opportunity to speak. If there are interruptions, jibes or personal attacks, the chair has the right to step in.
  • The chair then puts the motion to a vote and the majority wins.
  • The chair then confirms the vote and the secretary makes a note of this in the minutes and any official records.
  • The meeting notes are then distributed among all attendees and absentees where appropriate.

By turning Robert’s Rules into easily digestible chunks, it’s much easier to bring in this new way of managing meetings into your group or organisation. 

FAQ 

We’ve put together some Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) when it comes to Robert’s Rules of Order or RONR. 

Can we rely on Robert’s Rules of Order when running board meetings?

Yes. Keep in mind, though, that board meetings of twelve members or less have slightly more lax rules. Larger board meetings can adhere to Robert’s Rules as written. Smaller meetings fall under the ‘informal meetings’ category. 

For smaller boards, they wouldn’t have to address the chairperson or request the floor to speak. These groups can also discuss and debate before motions are presented. 

For both board meeting sizes, Robert’s Rules are appropriate and reliable to keep meetings on track and, most importantly to give everyone a voice.

What is a mass meeting?

A mass meeting is a large public meeting to discuss public affairs, approval or disapproval of something. Generally, these meetings don’t have an appointed chairman or secretary. They have to be appointed at the beginning of the meeting so someone can preside over the meeting, agenda and order. Similarly, a secretary needs to be available to be appointed to take minutes.

What are the five steps in presenting a motion?

For formal meetings, there are five key steps to take when presenting a new motion. First, members must ask the chairperson or presiding officer for the floor. Once this is done, the five steps begin:

  1. The member obtains the floor and makes a motion.
  2. All motions must be seconded by another member.
  3. Once seconded, the chair states the motion.
  4. Members debate and discuss the motion for and against.
  5. The chair puts the motion to a vote.

Once the vote has happened, the chair announces the results of the vote and the next steps for the motion.

Where can you use Robert’s Rules of Order?

Outside of the US parliament, Robert’s Rules are commonly used in a range of organisations. These include:

  • Volunteer fire departments
  • School groups, school boards and PTAs
  • Nonprofit associations and boards
  • Homeowner and neighbourhood watch associations
  • Fraternities and sororities
  • Parish or church meetings

Generally, Robert’s Rules are applicable to organisations of all sizes with any form of committee or meeting with discussion points.

Conclusion 

To summarise, Robert’s Rules of Order are an effective way of creating communication among groups, keeping meetings to order and letting everyone have their say. The rules have the foundations of integrity, equality and respect which have stood the passage of time since their original publication almost 150 years ago. Whether you’re part of a small committee, a board of trustees or a large-scale parliamentary organisation, Robert’s Rules are applicable and are a great way of managing and handling meetings with many people. 

References and further reading