Policy vs Procedure—and How to Use Both to Your Benefit
Policy vs Procedure—and How to Use Both to Your Benefit
February 24, 2023
Tango Content Marketing Lead
Hannah is a semi-recovered perfectionist and longtime subscriber to the squiggly model of success. She spent 11 years learning from the best at brands like HubSpot and Food52 and loves running, cooking, and helping people feel A++ at work. 🤗
A policy explains the what and why behind an overall approach. A procedure explains the how and when for completing a specific process or task.
Whereas a policy is a statement of intent, a procedure is an established or official way of doing something.
Maybe that’s exactly what you needed—a clear and concise definition of policy vs procedure.
If so—great! We’re glad you got what you came for. (And we hope you’ll swing by again soon.)
But maybe you’re looking for more. Maybe you want to do a deeper dive on policies and procedures. Maybe you want to see some policy and procedure examples. Maybe you want to understand their benefits—and if the juice is worth the squeeze. Maybe you have a few frequently asked questions. Or maybe you’d just like to document way more, in way less time.
In any of those cases—you should stick around.
Difference between a policy and a procedure
Policy vs procedure—it’s a valid question. 🤔
While policies often inform procedures, the reverse is less common. How come? Because guidelines determined by decision makers influence the way things get done. But even the best step-by-step instructions don’t usually result in brand new, business wide philosophies.
Explains what and why
Includes a set of parameters
Is broader in nature
Isn't always sequential
Allows for exceptions to the rule
Often reflects mission and values
Requires widespread buy-in
Usually determined by many stakeholders
May need high-level sign-off
Explains how and when
Includes specific directions
Is narrower in nature
Has a clear beginning and end
Prescribes the methodology
Is more rigid than flexible
Puts policy into action
Requires a logical and effective process
May be established by top performers
Can be changed at an operational level
Policy and procedure examples
Raise your hand if definitions are 👍🏽, but contextualized examples are 👍🏽👍🏽. This section is for you!
Think about a vacation policy. It’s probably full of general guidelines:
How much PTO is available?
Is a formal request necessary?
Does vacation accrue over time?
Is carryover allowed?
Are there any blackout periods?
Those questions answer the what—and establish effective parameters for fast and fair decision-making. A *great* vacation policy may also include your company’s overall philosophy about time off—and explain why the policy is what it is.
A PTO-related procedure, on the other hand, might explain exactly how to submit your request. If your company has a strong culture of documentation (as it should 🕺), you might be able to use a step-by-step guide or checklist to speed up the process.
A universally accepted set of instructions for how to do things—and when to do them—should make following the overarching vacation policy easy.
Policies don’t necessarily need to be written down—or related to work. Here are a few examples of personal policies:
A savings policy—that drives what you set aside for future expenses, investments, or a rainy day
A healthy living policy—that influences the way you exercise, eat, and sleep
A social media policy—that reflects your values about privacy
A digital detox policy—that limits your screen time
A personal development policy—that helps you prioritize learning new skills and trying new hobbies
A no-complaining policy—that makes you more positive, grateful, and solution-oriented
A regular self-care policy—that encourages you to do the things that make you feel your best
An eco-friendly policy—that impacts how often you compost, recycle, ride your bike, etc.
A punctuality policy—that means you call or text people if you’re running late
Workplace policies might include:
A code of conduct—that covers confidentiality, conflicts of interest, dress code, use of company property, etc.
A recruitment policy—that codifies how you hire new people
An internet and email policy—that explains everything from security protocols to what is and isn’t appropriate
A cell phone policy—that communicates any rules around phone usage at work
A smoking policy—that goes over if, when, and where you can smoke
A drug and alcohol policy—that prohibits the use, possession, and exchange of drugs and alcohol
A travel policy—that informs how you should book and expense business travel
An anti-discrimination and harassment policy—that provides clear guidelines for making sure everyone feels safe and welcome at work
A disciplinary action policy—that helps managers address unacceptable behavior
Examples of procedures are everywhere you look.
If you’ve ever assembled a piece of Ikea furniture (💪🏼), applied for a driver’s license, painted your toenails, followed a recipe, conducted a scientific experiment, or evacuated a building for a fire drill, chances are you’ve followed a procedure to a certain extent.
Well-documented procedures provide a clear roadmap for what to do, when. Here’s an example of how to make tea, in 10 steps:
The same logic applies at work.
You might rely on some pre-established procedures to make your job easier. Or you may be tasked with inventing them on your own. That’s the fun part, if you ask us!
If part of your success hinges on helping others adopt something you’ve discovered or built, you probably already know how important knowledge-sharing is. And you probably already know how tedious, time-consuming, and underappreciated process documentation can be. But it doesn’t have to be. 🤩
If you teach people to use software, there’s a better way to share everything you know. Generating how-to guides automatically, as you work, makes process documentation:
So easy → You won’t feel like you’re making documentation at all
So clear → You’ll never go back to dense text or long videos
So fast→ You’ll create 10x more tutorials in the time it used to take you to do one
If you’ve worked for a company that doesn’t have a policy and procedure manual in place yet, we don’t need to tell you there are some obvious upsides to having that kind of clarity. But! There are also some less obvious, equally important advantages.
Let’s look at those in more detail.
Process makes perfect. ✨ If it’s documented, it’s not just easier to learn and teach. It’s also easier to streamline and scale.
A single source of truth. 🎯 We spend 3.6 hours each day searching for information we need. Pre-established policies and procedures help everyone take back time.
Faster decision-making. 🚀 What helps people avoid indecision and move past points of uncertainty? Having clear guidelines and step-by-step instructions.
Better onboarding experiences. 👋 Policies and procedures help new hires hit the ground running—without as many question marks.
Increased compliance. ✅ Want to manage risk and protect your organization from legal liability? Two words: policies and procedures.
More consistent results. 👍🏿 With processes, you can reliably replicate successes—and isolate and correct mistakes.
Fewer interruptions. 🙌 With a framework in place (a policy) and instructions in hand (a procedure), you’re less likely to send that email—or be emailed down the road.
More autonomy and ownership. 🎉 Policies and procedures empower you to learn processes, use new tools, and be your best at work.
Less knowledge-hoarding. 👯 Knowledge is only valuable when it’s shared. Want to connect people and information? Have step-by-step procedures informed by overarching policies.
Documentation as a differentiator. 🧠 What’s inside your head is a competitive advantage for your company—and the best way to protect and manage that knowledge is by documenting it.
A culture of documentation. ✍🏾 The easier it is to create documentation, the more documentation you and your team will create. And the more documentation you create, the more knowledge will be captured, shared, and put to work.
Operational excellence. 🏆 With policies and procedures that everyone can find, follow, and continuously improve, you can optimize the processes contributing to company growth.
The bottom line
Process powers teams and empowers individuals.
Understanding policy vs procedure is the first step towards creating guidelines and tutorials that land well.
There’s one big reason to keep policy separate from procedure. We often make updates to how we do things. (Ideally by streamlining our processes!) While procedures are frequently in flux, overarching policies shouldn’t change quite as much. Approaching the two separately might make it easier to communicate what’s changing and what’s staying the same. The flip side is—policy and procedure should be closely aligned. Having related documentation can make it easier for everyone to follow the rules of the road, on a macro and micro level.
Which comes first: policy or procedure?
If you ask us—policies should come before procedures. It makes more sense for high-level guardrails (covering what and why) to inform step-by-step instructions (detailing how and when), doesn’t it?
What are some examples of policies and procedures?
Personal policy examples might include a savings policy, a healthy living policy, and a social media policy. Workplace policy examples might include a drug and alcohol policy, a travel policy, and an anti-discrimination and harassment policy.
Everyday procedure examples might include applying for a driver’s license, painting your toenails, and assembling a piece of furniture. Work-related procedure examples might include how to create a new project in Asana, a new sequence in HubSpot, or a weekly opportunities report in Salesforce.
What is the difference between a policy and standard operating procedure?
While policies work toward long-term goals, they don't detail the exact steps for how to get there. Instead of focusing on step-by-step instructions, policies provide general guardrails for more specific standard operating procedures (and reinforce them).
Why are policies and procedures important in the workplace?
Policies and procedures are important for obvious reasons like increased efficiency, faster decision-making, better onboarding experiences, and improved compliance and consistency. They also have underrated advantages. Think: operational excellence, employee empowerment, increased autonomy, fewer interruptions, and less knowledge-hoarding and more knowledge sharing.
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