What is a policy vs. a procedure?

No matter the industry, every organization needs policies and procedures to operate effectively. Learn the difference between policy and procedure on our site.

December 22, 2020

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Every organization, regardless of industry, needs well-written policies and procedures to operate effectively.

Organizational leaders should establish policies and procedures as soon as possible. Not only do they protect your organization and employees from noncompliance, they also define and shape culture.

Depending on industry, noncompliance could lead to fines, lawsuits, loss of reputation, or even put your employees at risk. These consequences, as well as other unknown risks, often happen suddenly and unexpectedly, so being proactive and preventative before anything happens is the wisest course of action.

To keep your organization as protected as possible, policies and procedures should continually evolve. They need to grow with your company, but they also need to reflect ever-changing federal, state, and local regulations.

If policies and procedures are so important, what are they? What’s the difference between them? Can my organization really benefit from policy and procedure management? In the rest of this article, we will examine these questions and more.

What is the difference between policies and procedures?

What is a policy?

Policy vs. procedure. It’s important to understand the difference.

Policies are a set of general guidelines. They outline your organization’s plan for tackling certain issues.

The purpose of policies is to communicate an organization’s values, philosophy, and culture. They include, but aren’t limited to, the following:

  • What employees can expect from the organization (employee benefits, vacation policy)
  • What the company expects from employees (code of conduct, confidentiality agreements)
  • What customers and the community can expect from the organization (customer service policies)

Effective policies also lay the foundation for a healthy work culture. Maybe you’ve seen firsthand how policies influence culture, communicate expectations to employees, and guide day-to-day operations. And maybe you’ve seen the adverse effect of neglected policies.

Good policy is more than just a list of rules. It should show employees the purpose behind their jobs and provide ways to measure success. What makes a good policy?

  • Clear, concise, and simple language
  • Explains the rule, not how to implement the rule
  • Easily accessible by staff at all times
  • Represents a consistent, logical framework

What is a procedure?

After establishing your organizational policies, procedures are the natural next step.

Policies set some parameters for decision-making but leave room for flexibility. They show the “why” behind an action.

Procedures, on the other hand, explain the “how.” They provide step-by-step instructions for specific routine tasks. They may even include a checklist or process steps to follow. But at the very least, your procedures should outline the following information:

  • Who is responsible for each task
  • What steps need to be taken
  • Who the responsible party reports to

Let’s look at an example, requesting vacation time, to better understand the difference between policy and procedure. The vacation policy determines how much PTO an employee is eligible to take. The procedure lists the steps involved to get PTO approval, or what factors determine who gets priority days off.

Establishing procedures ensures that employees know what to do and keeps your organization running smoothly, even when key employees are out of the office. What makes a good procedure?

  • Clear, concise, and simple language
  • Addresses how to implement policies
  • Takes user insight into account
  • Providing options when feasible, not unnecessarily restrictive

What is a process?

Processes explain how to achieve a desired outcome, whether that be a product or service. Processes roll up under your organization’s policies and explain how something works at a high level.

Learn more about the difference between policies, processes, and procedures in our buyer's guide to the top policy management solutions.

What is a guideline?

Most organizations have both guidelines and policies in place. Many use these terms interchangeably, but they're quite different.

Guidelines are general recommendations. They're not mandatory or required. Whereas policies are more formal documents, and following them is mandatory. 

Why policies and procedures matter to your organization

Together, policies and procedures guide your organization and reduce risk of liability. They promote consistency across the organization, both for employees and for customers.

Consistency builds a healthy reputation for your organization over time, especially in regard to employee touchpoints with customers. Another term for this is branding. Consistency builds and protects your brand.

Policies and procedures promote consistency across your organization, which builds and protects your brand over time.

But policies can only positively impact your organization if they're followed. The responsibility is twofold: on leadership to communicate policies effectively and on employees to follow them.powerdms-what-are-policies-and-procedures-asset-3_960-737x491

Policy and procedures increase compliance

Every industry has its own set of laws, regulations, standards, and best practices. These are constantly evolving, so it's important to frequently review policies and procedures to ensure they comply.

At a basic level, policies and procedures help your organization comply with federal, state, and local laws.

Many state laws dictate that companies have specific policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment. Your organization should cover these and other core employment policies in the employee handbook.

Of course, complying with employment law is only the beginning. Policies and procedures should go above and beyond legal standards. Good policy binds your organization to industry best practices.

Policies and procedures improve internal processes

As companies expand and evolve, internal processes can get convoluted. Internal processes are defined as the steps taken to bring about a particular outcome.

Policies and procedures bring clarity to internal processes, ensuring they achieve the desired end and helping employees provide more value to customers.

But this only happens if you and/or your administrators regularly review and update policies to fit your organization’s changing needs.

With policies and procedures constantly evolving, it’s important to document and track how things are done over time. Tracking versions of documents can help you improve internal processes. The right policy management tool will store and track versions of critical documents, but more on that later.

Let’s look at an example. Policies at a healthcare center may require all employees to receive 20 training hours each year. When the center first started with only a few employees, they did in-person staff training. But as the center hired more employees, getting everyone in the classroom for annual training became more complicated. The whole process started taking up administrative hours and dollars that could be better used elsewhere.

As the clinic’s administrators reviewed this internal process, they found a way to adjust training procedures to save time and money. The solution? They adopted training management software, which empowered their staff to complete training anytime, anywhere. Now they save money on instructors and no longer have to work around everyone’s busy schedule.


Policies help you navigate incidents and crises

Policies and procedures can prevent workplace incidents by putting proper safety measures in place. If an incident does take place, good policies and procedures get operations back to normal at a faster rate

For example, if a workplace accident occurs, procedures explain what actions the employee and his manager need to take. The procedure could list the proper forms that need to be filled, what incidents qualify for workers comp, how to apply for workers comp, etc.

After an incident, reviewing policies, procedures, and incident reports can help your team identify what went wrong. Then you can take steps to prevent similar accidents in the future.

Policies and procedures also keep your organization from overlooking incidents, which prevents them from turning into a crisis.

What is the difference between an incident and a crisis? A workplace incident happens internally and can interrupt day-to-day operations, whereas a crisis usually happens externally and can be harder to anticipate.

Some experts estimate that a large company will face a crisis at least once every seven years. Examples of crises include disasters, faulty products, malware attacks, lawsuits, and more. They can threaten your organization’s finances, reputation, or ability to continue providing services.

In the case of a PR crisis, for example, good customer service, social media, and communication policies can help your organization reduce damage to its reputation.

Why every industry needs policies and procedures

Law enforcement policy

Policy has always been important in law enforcement. But keeping updated policies has become even more important in the last few years with police accountability becoming a hot topic.

Law enforcement is inherently dangerous, complex work. Police officers need to have the proper training and access to policies in order to protect themselves in the field, and those they serve. For example, policies on use-of-force can help build trust between police departments and their communities.

Some police departments make certain policies public to promote police accountability. The right policy management tool can help your organization share important documents with your community.

Fire policy

For firefighters, knowing and following procedures can be a matter of life and death. Firefighters need to work as a team to respond to emergencies quickly and effectively. If there’s even one weak link, it can put the entire team in danger.

Policies on training, medical screenings, first response, and equipment maintenance certify that firefighters are ready to do their jobs well. Other policies and procedures set guidelines to help firefighters make decisions in dangerous, high-pressure situations.

Healthcare policy

Lives are on the line in the healthcare industry as well, making it necessary to have a structured training and policy process.

Healthcare organizations encounter more liability risks than most. But policies and procedures can help them mitigate risk, improve compliance, protect private patient information, and provide quality customer care.

With healthcare policy frequently changing, it’s important to have a structured system for updating policies and disseminating them to staff.

Corporate policy

Corporate policies define the specific guidelines of your company – everything from work-from-home policies to sick policies to other policies specific to your organization or industry.

Corporate procedures detail how to follow policies and processes, like how to operate equipment. 

Together, corporate policies and procedures ensure consistent customer experiences, keep employees safe, maintain compliance to laws and regulations, and reduce liability.

Learn more about corporate policies and procedures here.

How policy and procedure management helps your organization

Throughout this article, we have discussed the difference between policy and procedure, why they are a necessity for your organization, and how the right software can help. Now let’s talk about the importance of policy management and how you can find the right policy management software for your organization.

Reviews and updates

Policies and procedures should grow and change with your organization, adapting to its needs and industry standards. According to the experts, you need to review and update policies at least once a year. Some policies may need to be revised on a bi-annual or quarterly basis.

Updating policies and procedures should be a collaborative process. Administrators need to work with leaders, employees from different levels of the organization, and representatives from groups who will be influenced by the policies. Collaborating with all these people, users especially, makes the policy more precise and increases adoption by employees.

The collaboration process doesn’t have to be difficult. PowerDMS’s policy and procedure management tools let you create automated approval workflows to collaborate on new policy drafts. That way, you can track changes, control who can edit/view the draft, and see the complete history of every document.

Once you’re ready to publish an updated policy, PowerDMS automatically archives the old version, avoiding the confusion of multiple, conflicting versions of policies and procedures.


Your employees should be able to access policies and procedures at any time. In critical, high-pressure situations, flipping through a physical policy manual isn’t practical or time-efficient.

PowerDMS provides organizations with a secure, centralized location online for policies and procedures. Employees can access policies at any time, from any mobile device, by pulling up the relevant document with a simple keyword search.

Employee Accountability

Unfortunately, making policies and procedures available doesn’t guarantee that employees will read them. New employees should be trained and tested on policies and procedures during orientation, but even long-time employees will need reminders.

When policy updates are distributed, you should verify that all employees have signed off on it. This protects your organization and your employees from incidents of noncompliance.

Fortunately, PowerDMS lets you distribute policies and collect electronic E-signatures with a couple of clicks. You can even assign quizzes to test comprehension and retention.

Finding your policy and procedure management software

Looking for a tool to manage policies and procedures across their entire lifecycle? Ideally, you will need something that manages policy, training, and accreditation from a central, digital location. Something like PowerDMS.

PowerDMS is a single, connected platform for all your policy needs: drafting, revising, distributing, tracking, and collaborating. With built-in features for accountability, automated workflows, version control, and more, you can manage compliance without the headache.

While there are other content management solutions like Dropbox or Sharepoint, none of them provide a living connection between your policies, training, and accreditation.

Be preventative. Before noncompliance strikes, learn how PowerDMS can help you manage your policies and procedures. All while saving time and money. Sign up for a free and friendly demo today.

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