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Avoiding Common Pitfalls: Don’t Mix up Policies and Procedures

Avoiding Common Pitfalls: Don’t Mix up Policies and Procedures

Every day, we hear from new prospects tired of the status quo with their policies and procedures and looking for a better way to manage and communicate.  Even today, companies are still working from binders on a shelf or a 500-page PDF of their standard operating procedures and employee manual. Unfortunately, it’s very common for people to blend policy with procedure. You are not alone, but you are in the right place.  

Policy vs Procedure blog graphic


Mixing up policies and procedures information all in the same document is one of the biggest mistakes that can keep your policies and procedures from getting read and used. Mixing policy and procedure confuses people. The practice also makes it difficult to update content because everything is intermixed. Version control is nearly impossible.

Hardwiring policy and procedures together causes maintenance problems. Regulators, inspectors, and auditors don't like it either.

Consider the scenario where a company has recently launched its new strategic plan. Senior management has prioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion, and they expect everyone to align their work with these new strategic objectives.

A manager in human resources has written a well-intentioned recruitment policy for workplace inclusivity and diversity. However, the specific recruitment procedures are not thoroughly documented. The procedure lacks specific instructions. What employees and management must do to comply with the policy is unclear.

A manager goes to hire a new team member but there is no procedure that explains how they can do a better job to attract or recruit diverse candidates. It's left up to each hiring manager or each HR recruiter to decide where to post new jobs. One manager might post on, and another might use Another may rely on social media posts. There are no documented best practices. The result is a biased, inequitable recruitment process instead of an inclusive process designed to attract diverse candidates.

Lacking procedural details and work instructions, the employee is left to interpret the policy independently, resulting in inconsistent implementation and potential missteps.

This mix-up highlights the importance of distinguishing policies, which set guidelines, from procedures, which provide actionable steps for adhering to policies and operational efficiency.

Keep reading to learn more about the importance of understanding the key differences between policy and procedure within your organization and why you need both.

Understanding the Difference Between Policy and Procedure

Together, policies and procedures form a cohesive framework for operations and compliance. Most people who make the mistake of mixing policy and procedure together never really understand the difference. That’s the first step in creating a framework that is easy to understand and update.

What is a Policy?

A policy is a set of general guidelines or statements of position regarding a given topic. Policies answer the question: What do I need to know?

At their core, policies are explicit statements explaining an organization's overarching principles and expectations. They set boundaries. They offer a set of business rules. Effective policies do not contain steps or actions.

Policies can also support company culture. Policies address topics such as ethical standards, compliance guidelines, security requirements, and more.  Policies can lay the foundation for creating an environment built on trust, respect, and ethical work standards. A well-crafted policy should clearly communicate the organization's stance, give examples, and explain policy nuances and provisions.

A company’s code of conduct policy is a good example. The policy may detail acceptable work behavior examples like attendance, personal appearance and dress code, and communication. The same policy can also explain behavior that is unacceptable, like discriminatory behavior, harassment, bullying, or victimization.

What is a Procedure?

A procedure (sometimes referred to as a standard operating procedure) is a structured series of steps or actions that outlines how a specific task or process should be performed within an organization.  

A procedure offers an employee detailed instructions or a step-by-step guide on how to complete a task successfully.

Procedures represent the detailed roadmap for executing specific tasks, processes, or activities. Unlike policies, which set standards and guidelines, procedures tell employees “how to.”

Keeping with the example of a company’s vacation policy, related procedures to this policy are all the “how-tos" that cover tasks such as making a vacation request, how to notify team members, autoresponder email, and more.

A well-defined procedure leaves little room for interpretation, promoting precision and clarity in executing tasks. It outlines the who, what, when, where, and how of a given process, empowering employees with all the information needed to carry out the task efficiently.

Ultimately, procedures standardize an organization’s best practices for achieving the desired outcome. When each individual employee follows the same repeatable and auditable process, costs go down, employee confidence goes up, and compliance is enforced.

Handling Policy vs. Procedure in Operational Documentation

Policies and procedures work together but should be in separate documents that are linked together. This interconnectedness ensures that employees understand what is expected of them and have a practical guide to follow in their day-to-day activities.

Common mistakes regarding policies and procedures:


Mistake #1: The policy and the related procedure should be in the same document.

There is often no one-to-one correspondence between policy and a single procedure. Typically, there are multiple processes and procedures related to a specific procedure. This practice is a common reason policy and procedure content is so difficult to maintain.

Hardwiring policies and procedures together makes it impossible to sort, track, refine, filter, and report them.  

Different people have different questions. People in different roles have different responsibilities related to business processes. When you force them to wade through a lot of non-relevant information to get the answer to their question, they will get frustrated and not use the content. Some employees may never find the answer they are looking for, so they guess or ask a co-worker.

Mistake #2: We only need policies. We don’t need any procedures.

Creating policies by themselves is a good start, but it’s equivalent to saying something like: “It is our company policy to be an equal opportunity employer,” or “It is our policy etc., etc.” That’s it.

It’s then up to the employees to figure out how to make that happen on their own. This is risky and can often be disastrous.

If your procedures aren’t captured and cross-checked with stated policies, your organization will, at best, be out of sync with itself and, at worst, be noncompliant with legal, regulatory, or internal controls.

Mistake #3: We only need procedures. We don’t need policies.

Focusing only on procedures risks that your “how-tos” may be out of sync or non-compliant with policies. Procedure authors will often begin writing a procedure and then lapse into policy mode, resulting in policy mixed with the procedure.

8 Benefits of Having Both Policies and Procedures

Think about policies and procedures as a system that people use. When an organization includes both policies and procedures in operational documentation, everyone in the organization benefits.

Benefits Having Both Policies and Procedures blog graphic - Comprose

1. Clear, Established Guidelines Paired With “How-tos.”

Employees have a complete system – everything they need to guide their decision-making and behavior. They no longer need to ask their supervisor or co-worker for help on routine tasks.

2. Maintained Compliance.

Policies set compliance standards; procedures operationalize those standards. When policies and procedures are separate but linked, it's easier to make updates when federal or state laws or standards change, or a new regulation comes along. It’s easier to meet industry standards.

3. Increased Accountability.

Policies and related procedures establish a framework for accountability. When expectations, responsibilities, and actions are clearly defined, managers have a tool to hold individuals and teams accountable for their actions and performance.

4. Organizational Consistency.

When employees do their own thing, the consequences can be disastrous. Policies and related procedures ensure that activities are performed uniformly across the organization.

5. Expanded Transparency.

Policies and procedures enable everyone to understand how the organization operates and how their role fits in. This transparency makes it possible to knock down knowledge solos, increase collaboration, and promote a cohesive work environment. With documented policies and procedures, “how we do it here” is now visible. It’s easier to pinpoint areas for improvement.

6. Mitigated Risk.

Well-defined policies and procedures help manage risks by establishing protocols and guidelines for risk assessment, mitigation strategies, and actions to be taken in the event of unexpected circumstances.

7. Structured Training and Onboarding.

Policies and procedures are the foundation for new employee onboarding. The onboarding process is organized and efficient. Everyone gets trained the same way. New employees feel confident in their role. They have a system they can reference after training.

8. Improved Efficiency.

Clearly documented policies and procedures streamline workflows and drive down costs. When each individual employee has a well-designed policy and procedure system to follow, they are empowered to perform their jobs efficiently.

Make Policy and Procedure Documentation Easy with Zavanta SOP Software

Zavanta software is your solution for comprehensive policy and procedure management.  

One of its standout features is the ability to cross-link policies and procedures, creating a network of interconnected documents for easy access. This interconnected approach allows users to navigate through related documents effortlessly, enhancing the overall user experience.

Zavanta is an all-in-one solution that streamlines the entire life cycle of policies and procedures - from initial creation to regular updates, reviews, and implementation. With Zavanta, employees can access clear, accurate policies and procedures when they need them.

Contact us today to start a conversation.

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