Policies vs procedures

August 26, 2010

While often stated together, ‘policies and procedures’ are two quite different beasts.

Kathy F, on the STC Lone Writers SIG email discussion group, defined the difference as:

Policies describe what is to be done and who does it.

Procedures describe how it’s done.

She then elaborated further on policies:

Policies are high-level documents consisting of guiding principles designed to influence and determine decisions, actions, and related matters.

A policy states:

  1. What is to be done.
  2. What resources and methodologies are to be used.
  3. But NOT how to do it (that’s the role of procedures).

A policy:

  • Provides a framework of principles and constraints to be followed in decision making.
  • Guides the organization toward a consistent pattern of decisions and direction of thought (implies latitude for discretion).
  • Leads to (and may specify) planning, actions, and controls for implementing decisions.

Effective policies:

  • Should clearly reflect objectives and plans; mandates set forth in the policy must be capable of being accomplished.
  • May only contain direction with which compliance is mandatory.
  • Should describe criteria for current and future action.
  • Must be understandable.
  • Must be consistent.
  • Should be sharply distinguished from rules and procedures.
  • Should be viewed as subject to change.

For example, a company’s annual leave policy for employees may state:

“Full-time employees are entitled to four weeks annual leave per calendar year. Leave cannot be accrued. Applications for annual leave must be approved by your manager.”

The procedure will describe the ‘how’ of this policy, and may include the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘where’ as well. For example:

  1. At least one month before you require annual leave, complete an Annual Leave Request Form (available from [link to company intranet]).
  2. Complete all required fields, making sure you clearly indicate the start and end dates of your leave request.
  3. Press Submit. The electronic form will be forwarded to your manager for approval and sign-off.
  4. Once approved, the electronic form will be forwarded to HR for their records, and a copy of the approved request will be emailed to you.

Other procedures in the section on Annual Leave may describe exceptions. For example, what to do if your manager is unavailable, what to do if your application is refused for the dates you requested, how to put in an urgent request for leave, etc.

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