How to write policies and procedures (with free template)

Policies and procedures are the lifeblood of any organization, but writing them isn't easy. Here are some best practices for writing policies and procedures.

December 18, 2020

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We'll admit, sometimes policies and procedures are dry and boring. Sometimes they seem like common sense recitations of things that "go without saying." They cover things that you’d hope people know they should be doing, or not doing, as they go about their jobs.

But policies do more than that. They provide guidance, answer questions, solve ambiguities, detail best practices, and keep your people safe and out of legal trouble. They define the standards for conduct and appropriate behavior.

Policies and procedures are the framework that your organization is built on, reflecting your values and guiding your employees to success in their daily operations.

That means your policies and procedures manual shoulders the burden of creating your company's culture. They're the visions and expectations of your executive leadership, showing how employees are expected to carry out those visions and meet those expectations. They equip your staff to meet their strategic goals, reduce legal and regulatory risk, create standards for performance, and identify opportunities for improvement.

Why are policies and procedures important?

According to the Navex Global 2016 Ethics and Compliance Policy Management Benchmark Report, between 2013–2016, 44% of organizations faced legal or external regulatory actions where a policy came under review as part of the action or defense. In that same report, the authors found that 47% of organizations say keeping policies current with changing regulations is their number one challenge. 

As you write new policies and procedures or rewrite your old ones, it's important to understand the difference between the two. Your policies are the high-level principles that set the tone for the entire organization. The procedures are how those policies are carried out. They also define the lower-level processes that shore up the policies.

That is, if employee safety is one of your bedrock policies, and the organization expects complete adherence to your safety policies, the procedures establish how those policies will be followed, such as the wearing and disposal of PPE (personal protective equipment), or the training requirements for handling hazardous materials.

This article will show you a few best practices for building a solid foundation in guiding your team toward success. We'll talk about how to prepare for writing your policies, how to write a policy and a procedure, and how to implement your shiny new policies and procedures.

How to prepare for policy writing

Sharpen your pencils, brew some coffee, and grab a doughnut, because it's policy writing time.

Writing policies and procedures can be a long and involved process, and you'll spend almost as much time preparing as you will actually writing.

Since these are the documents that affect how everyone works every day, you need to get it right. So here's how you can do that.

Develop a policy charter or mandate

Before you start writing any new policy, you need buy-in from top leadership. If it's anything more than a simple departmental requirement (e.g. dos and don'ts of the employee kitchen on the 7th floor), you need the highest leadership buy-in you can get.

After all, these policies will drive the culture of your office, there are also legal implications of these new policies. That means there will need to be several people involved in the final approval.

Once you have that executive mandate, now you can start the actual development.

Keep the end goal in mind

Consider why you're writing your new policies, and let that inform the actual writing process. Make sure the entire team, including management, understands and buys into the "why" early on. This will set the tone, content, and even the organization of your policy manual.

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Use a standard policy and procedure template

Establishing a standard policy template makes each policy document clear and organized. It sets the standard for how all policies will be written and organized, so they are easy to understand and navigate.

Even if you create several new policies years later, the format will be easy to recreate because you set that standard now. This will also streamline the writing process and save a lot of time.

(You could even make a policy on policy writing.)

Here are a few ideas of what to include in your policy template:

  • Document Header: Information about the policy including title, effective/revision dates, approver's signature, and department.
  • Introduction/Purpose Statement: What is it about? What's the reason for having it?
  • Policy statement: What your organization's policy specific to the topic?
  • Definitions: It's important to define terms as you go, especially for words and phrases with multiple meanings, and for industry- or job-related terms. This makes policies easy to understand and could save you from arguing about definitions should you face litigation.
  • Procedures: Step-by-step instructions for routine tasks and operations. Ask the people who actually perform these tasks for help in writing the steps.
  • Conduct: Guidelines for proper behavior and restrictions on employee behavior. What are the consequences of a violation?
  • Reporting requirements: How do employees report an incident or violation? What's the procedure for reporting?

Select a technology to manage the process

You could always write all the policies in your word processor of choice, but then you have to share the document so everyone can mark up their own version, and then you've got several versions of the same document to wade through.

Or you could upload it to a cloud word processor, like Google Docs, which at least reduces the number of different versions you're juggling. Everyone can edit the same document and all the changes will be held in the same document. But you still need something that gives you version control and can map your policies to your accreditation and licensing requirements.

So it pays to use online policy management software in order to write your new policies. It makes everything visible and transparent, and you can even automate the approval process by your managers.

Form a policy management team

Depending on the size of your organization, you'll need a team to help you write your policies and procedures. It also helps you get more buy-in from stakeholders around the organization. Plus, it ensures you don't forget important information.

Since your policies will affect everyone across the organization, bring in people from different departments to help. Tap into the subject matter experts in how a particular department or role functions. Include the people who understand and can help you adhere to any local, state, and federal laws that affect how everyone functions.

Chron recommends defining an owner or admin to be responsible for managing the entire policy writing process, coordinating reviews, revisions, and distribution of the new policies.

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How to write policies and procedures

Now that you have management buy-in, your team is assembled, and you have a structure and a technology solution, you're ready to actually start writing. Here's how that should work.

Prioritize a policy list

You can't write every policy at once and some are more important than others, so create a list of policies that need to be done first. Prioritize your new policies and revisions in order of importance and create an order and a timeline when they each need to be completed.

Meet with your policy team and decide what you need to address. Keep your end goal in mind when you're defining these priorities, as that will help you stay on track.

Conduct thorough research

Take a look at your existing procedures to zone in on how things are currently done.

You will also want to investigate any compliance issues that may have prompted your policy review.

There are a few ways you can investigate or research existing processes:

  • Interview those involved in day-to-day tasks
  • Shadow coworkers to see what current procedures are
  • Interview internal and external subject matter experts
  • Find up-to-date laws, regulations, and accreditation standards
  • Identify overlapping policies to ensure consistent language and requirements

Write an initial draft

Writing policies or procedures is not a one-and-done effort. The initial draft will require a few revisions. It makes sense to get feedback from stakeholders and coworkers, and you'll want to revise your draft based on everything you hear back from them. 

Having someone other than the policy owner write the initial draft may help facilitate an outsider’s perspective, ultimately making your procedures more transferable to daily operations.

This could also help simplify the language and remove technical jargon that would clutter your document.

Don't use a lot of industry-specific terms, especially as your organization may cross several different licensing groups, functions, and even industries. The same acronyms and terms could mean different things to different employee groups, so you'll want to avoid confusion.

Limiting technical jargon will also make it easier for new hires, who may be new to the industry, to understand your policies and procedures. 

Validate the procedures

To ensure your procedures make sense, you need to see them in action.

It’s always a good idea to go back to the employees who do the daily work and have them perform the procedures.

Remember, this only applies to the procedures portion of your manual, not the policies and prohibited actions.

Send draft out for review

Now that you have written a draft, it’s time to review it.

If a non-expert wrote the initial draft, you'll want to ask an actual expert to review it. This is key to your policy's success. You'll have to walk a fine line between your subject matter experts' need for thoroughness and your non-experts' need for clarity and simplicity.

You can  streamline the process by using policy management software, like PowerDMS, with audit trail features and version control. You'll be able to access each document's history so you can pinpoint any changes. This way, you can collaborate on revisions, ensuring none of your material gets lost or accidentally deleted.

Obtain final approval/sign off

Typically, you need someone on the executive team to sign off on each new policy. They are ultimately accountable for the policy, which means they need to officially approve the final draft. This should always be done by the highest level of leadership that makes sense for each policy. 

For example, you don't need the CEO to sign off on new policies for cleaning up spills, but you do for workplace harassment or management of proprietary information. And the IT manager shouldn't be signing off on an Acceptable Use Policy; that goes to the CTO or CIO who is ultimately responsible.

How to implement new policies and procedures

Once you've written your new policies and procedures, you need to create a plan to ensure compliance. Here's how you can do it.

Distribute the new policies

Sure, you could print these out and create binders full of policies, but that's a waste of time and money, not to mention all the headaches it will create as soon as a single policy gets updated.

Instead, use a policy management software solution to store your policy manual. That way, your employees will be able to access them at any time, even outside the office. By keeping them in one place, your employees can easily search for them to answer any compliance questions they have.

You can also use the policy management software to distribute the policies, ensure everyone reviews and understands them, and even have them sign off on the documents. Further, you can track all the signatures to ensure full regulatory and accreditation compliance.

Create a training plan

Of course, reading a new policy is not the same as understanding the policy, especially if these are complex and/or legal requirements that required input form subject matter experts.

You'll want to develop training content so employees can understand the organizational expectations and the executive vision. Using a policy management solution that includes a training management tool can make things a whole lot easier.

You can create customizable online training that not only saves time and money, it helps your employees quickly understand your new policies. You can also test their knowledge and understanding with assessments, which will not only help with any compliance requirements, it can show you holes in your training and other materials.

Establish a review cycle

Laws and best practices are always evolving and technology is always changing, which means policies and procedures are living documents. So even though you're done writing the policies, that doesn't mean you're ever fully finished. (Policy management is an ongoing issue.)

Part of a healthy, robust policy management process means reviewing policies on a regular basis, such as reviewing policies on social media or bring-your-own-device every six months. Other policies may only need reviews and revisions once a year or every few years.

Including the review process as part of your writing process will help ensure the policies are never out of date. Just make sure to pay attention to any details that will need to be revisited, and keep the bigger picture and end goals in mind throughout the whole process.

Set yourself up for long term success

Your policy and procedure manual sets the tone for conduct in your organization and ultimately defines your daily operations. By taking the time to make yours effective, you're taking a big step toward positively developing your organization. Learn more about writing policies here.

The PowerDMS policy management platform can streamline the writing of policies and procedures, updating manuals, and mapping them to training and accreditation requirements. To learn more about using PowerDMS for policy creation and management, you can visit our website and request a free demo.

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