The difference between policies, procedures and work instructions (and why you need them)

Pregnant woman at work with colleagues‘I’m pregnant.’ Words to normally evoke joy (or panic). But the person telling me this good news wasn’t my partner – she was my internal communications manager. I wasn’t a happy parent-to-be, I was a rookie middle manager in a large public sector organisation. My (yes, slightly panicked) reaction was: ‘What do I do next?’

I contacted a friend in HR for help. ‘It’s OK, I’ll send you the policy,’ she said. 

And what a policy it was. It valued people. It promised to be non-discriminatory. It met all the legislation and more. 

But it didn’t tell me what to do.

It took me a few more phone calls – and a long chat with a fellow manager who also had a pregnant team member – to work it all out. 

But it made me think: we can have the best-crafted policies in the world, but if the people who need to implement them don’t know what to do to bring them to life, it’s a wasted effort.


Three documents for better work

Sometimes at work we need guiding in the right direction – to make the right decision or carry out a task.

Such decisions can be about staying on the right side of the law. Sometimes they’re about making sure that staff and customers get a consistent, quality service. And sometimes this guidance is simply there to help keep us safe. For all these reasons and more, it’s important to create documents we can refer to in such moments of need (and alarm). 

We’ll look at three of these documents here: the policy, the procedure and the work instruction. Each one has a distinct purpose but the three can be easy to mix up or conflate. So let’s clarify the differences between them now. 


What is a policy?

A policy states your organisation’s position on something. A policy should govern or even constrain your operations so that your employees consistently behave in a way that reflects your mission and vision. The purpose of some of your policies will be to stay within the law. Others will be expressions of your company values or employer brand. Most will be a mix of the two.

If your company or organisation is small – say, no more than 10 to 12 people – you may not need policies. If there are a dozen of you sitting around an office, you most likely know how and why you do things. Mind you, the caveat even here is that there are risks to having certain knowledge only existing in one or two people’s heads. If they are on leave or off sick, you might suddenly find yourselves stumped. 

Then, as you grow, decision-making will begin to get devolved to managers and their teams. And this is where you need something in writing that expresses to your employees how you expect them to go about performing certain tasks. 

The way to do that is to develop and publish a set of policies that explain how you expect employees to manage issues that they may come across. These issues can vary widely: it could be a colleague alleging that a staff member is corrupt or simply needing to find a new supplier for a service. 


Why are policies important?

Well-developed policies will help both the company and the employees. Your business will work more efficiently and more consistently. And employees will understand how they’re expected to approach certain situations – removing the stress of uncertainty. 

A well-developed policy will also make sure that you comply with legislation and within established good practice. 

For example, let’s think about my former employer’s maternity policy. It certainly covered the employment law that affects pregnant women. But it went a lot further. The terms were a lot more generous than the law required. This is because the company wanted to show – as part of their employer brand – that they valued and wanted to retain younger women as part of their workforce. So the policy covered both the legal aspects and those that were part of their ‘brand’.

And this is something to consider when you write your policy documents. Your customers may want to deal with a company that has a certain position on things like employment conditions, environmental standards, and investment policy. Your potential staff may want to work only for employers that have certain policies in place.

While it can be tempting to think of policy only as a way to protect yourself from prosecution, they can also be a useful way to attract people to your company.


What policies do I need?

Don’t panic! If you overthink this early on, you may find yourself with a very long list of policies to develop – and in no kind of prioritised order. 

The key is to start with the policies that will help you to mitigate important risks, such as complying with laws and regulations. 

If you’re starting from scratch, look at the legislation you need to comply with first. Employment law, health and safety and the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) will keep you pretty busy. Once those are done, you can move on to the medium risks, then the low. 

Yes, it will take you some time and effort. But it’s worth it. Well-developed and implemented policies (and procedures) can help to keep your company out of legal trouble in the future.


Get buy in

Don’t develop your policies in a vacuum. You won’t succeed in implementing them unless your staff understand and – as much as possible – agree with them. 

Talk to your staff before you start to write and while you are writing. Then get comments from them when you’ve finished. Act on what they tell you, if you can. Your colleagues and team members will almost always have something useful to contribute. And if they feel that they are part of the development process, they are more likely to embrace and use the policy when it goes live. 


Don’t stop there

There are a lot of things you need to do when creating policies. You will rightly feel proud of yourself when you’ve finished one. But merely creating a great policy is not enough. You need to bring it to life for your staff. 

You need a procedure.


What is a procedure?

So, if that’s a policy – what’s a procedure? The two kinds of documents are closely related. Your policy sets out your company’s position on something. A procedure tells your staff how to put it into practice. 

A good procedure will give your staff – usually a manager or supervisor – a sequence of steps to follow so that they can implement the policy or deal with any violation.


Why are procedures important?

As I found out all those years ago, just having a good policy won’t clarify what needs to happen next. My employers hadn’t developed a procedure to go with their policy. I had nothing to help me make sure that my internal communications manager had the maternity experience that my employers aspired to. 

What would have helped me would have been a step-by-step guide to what to do and when: beginning with asking for the MAT B1 form and ending with the employee’s return from maternity leave. A procedure like this would have given me confidence, instead of leaving me in confusion. 

So when you have your policy in good shape, you need to start thinking about what else you need to write to turn this more abstract document into practical guidance. 

How to tell a policy from a procedure or a work instruction – and when you need each one. Via @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet

Make them usable

For management actions, you may just need a procedure that simply states ‘Do this, then this and if this happens, take advice’. In a good working environment, it is important that you’re able to trust your managers to use sense and judgment when enacting one of your policies. But give them clear instructions to work from. 

And put checks and balances into the process to keep them on the right track. This can look something like a decision tree: at a particular point, there may be two ways things could go. Explain both. Or if something hasn’t happened by that point, what should they do then? 

For example, in the case of a pregnant colleague, part of the procedure would tell you to do a work-station assessment. Is their desk set-up still suitable for someone going through that physical change? Once you submit that assessment to the health and safety team, there are two possibilities: it was suitable or it wasn’t. What are the next steps in either case?

And make support easy to access. Who is the contact or source of expertise in the relevant area? Include the name and details of the person or department – or list the intranet page where that information can be found.  


Sometimes you need more detail

So, procedures walk you through the range of actions to take in certain circumstances. But for some activities, you need to break the task down to the how-to. These are times you need to be much more prescriptive – when you need to show staff how to perform a particular task safely. In this case, you need a work instruction.


What is a work instruction?

A work instruction shows someone exactly how to perform a task, like installing a piece of software or performing that work-station assessment. It breaks the task down into small individual actions that your staff member needs to perform precisely and in a particular order.


Why are work instructions important?

You might have a health and safety policy that states that you will lose no staff days to accidents and injuries. If you are to achieve that, and also keep the health and safety inspectors happy, you will need to give your staff detailed instructions on how to perform the sorts of tasks that could lead to accidents or injuries. 

These documents should be easy to access, easy to understand, ideally have illustrations or photographs, and you should review them regularly to make sure that everything is still accurate.

Write work instructions as instructions. Use the imperative by starting your sentences with a verb. This looks like this:

  • Open the box
  • Take out the widget and place it on a solid surface
  • Plug the widget into the wall socket
  • Open the widget lid
  • Load the widget with widget stuff and close the lid
  • Place the widget in the widget slot on the megawidget and lock the fasteners
  • Check that all connections are secure and switch on

And so on. Writing instructions as directly as this does not always come easily to British people – we can be a bit shy about issuing orders. But your staff will thank you for it because your instructions will be clear and unambiguous.


Policies vs procedures vs work instructions

If you have a policy on something at work, you will also need a procedure and possibly some work instructions. 

Your policy sets out your strategic aim, your procedure tells your managers how to implement it, and your work instructions show people how to perform specific actions. When it all comes together, all of the effort it took to produce the documents and guidance becomes worthwhile.


Some final advice

You may find some advice online that suggests writing policy and procedure documents in a complex, almost legalistic language. This is the very worst thing that you can do. These documents need to live and breathe. 

Your staff need to be able to pick them up and use them easily. If people struggle to understand them, they might well choose to ignore them. This could leave you in breach of regulation or even the law – not to mention putting your people and your company at risk.

Back at my previous employer, I worked with the director of human resources to rewrite all of their policies in clear English. We also wrote clear, step-by-step procedures for managers and staff to use. Yes, it took months. But in the end, she won a major HR award for the project and soon moved on to bigger and better (paid) things.

So if merely saving your colleagues from stress and your company from potential lawsuits isn’t motivation enough to crack on, no panic. Just think of the potential acclaim.


Image credit: wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

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