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  Writing for Business and Pleasure
  Copyright by
Stephen Wilbers

Policies & Procedures

First published January 20, 1995

 Policies and procedures are rules that govern

by Stephen Wilbers

Policies and procedures.

It has a nice sound to it, don’t you think? Policies and procedures. Something like Pride and Prejudice or Of Mice and Men.

But if you have spent any time writing or revising them, you may not find the sound so appealing. To you, policies and procedures may sound more like instruments of torture than helpful explanations of what’s what. In case you haven’t had the privilege of experiencing policies and procedures firsthand, let me offer a definition.

Many companies present their policies and procedures without distinguishing between the two, but technically there is a difference. Policies are the rules and regulations that govern an organization. Procedures are the steps taken to implement or abide by these rules and regulations. Often, a policy statement is preceded by a general explanation of the policy’s purpose or rationale.

To illustrate:

1.0 Explanation of policies and procedures.

1.1 The policies of an organization stipulate the conditions affecting employees: when they work, how much they are paid for overtime, how many days of sick leave and vacation they accrue, when and where they may smoke, and who gets the corner office with all the windows.

1.2 The procedures provide step-by-step instructions for carrying out those policies: how to get on the payroll, request time off, apply for a reclassification of job duties, request a pay increase, and appeal a demotion (not that there’s a connection between the latter two).


2.1 The advice offered in this column is meant to help you write clear, precise policies and procedures. It is intended for mature audiences only.

2.2 Willful disregard of this advice may subject you to embarrassment, humiliation, and ridicule. It also may be harmful to your career.


3.1 Consult with the appropriate people to ensure that your understanding of policy is correct and that your procedures are accurate and complete.

3.2 Be consistent in wording, structure, and format. Switching from complete sentences to fragments or from command statements to declarative sentences will confuse your reader.

3.3 Number each item. A nifty numbering system like the one I’m using here makes reference easy.

3.4 Number each section separately and consider using letters as headings. For example, you might use ML-1, ML-2, ML-3, etc., for policies and procedures relating to maternity leave. This enables you to add, delete, revise, or reorganize sections without having to renumber the procedures throughout your entire document. Pretty slick, don’t you think?

3.5 Use a two-column format when more than one person or office is involved. Identify the actor in one column and the action to be taken in the other. This "play script" format enables all the actors to see how their parts fit into the whole.

3.6 Indicate on each page the date the procedures were written or the date of their most recent revision. Few things are more annoying than having to redo something because outdated procedures were followed.

3.7 Use unambiguous, easy-to-understand language. Although policies and procedures are formal rules, they don’t have to sound like legal documents. Use "will" rather than "shall," and "these" or "those" rather than "such" or "said." Compare: "Failure to follow said policies shall result in immediate termination" to "Failure to follow these policies will result in immediate termination" or "If you fail to follow these policies, you will be terminated."

3.8 Keep the paper copy of your policies and procedures in a loose-leaf binder. This enables you to pop things in and out and move sections around.

3.9 Have fun.

Revised: January 20, 1995.