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SOP vs Policy - what’s the difference?

Policy is often considered the backbone of an organisation, outlining its position and stating what employees should and shouldn’t do in order to comply with expectations and embody company values. Standard operating procedures, or SOPs, are a much smaller piece of the puzzle with a much more limited circle of influence, although they are also an important part of business compliance and ensuring specific outcomes.

Understanding the differences when it comes to policy vs procedure is an important part of ensuring that both things are serving their intended purpose and being used properly to get the best results. In this article, we’re going to take you through the key differences that should be weighed up when describing SOP vs policy and explain the impact and importance of these differences in each case.

What is a standard operating procedure?

A standard operating procedure, abbreviated to SOP, is an official set of guidelines for a business procedure. It sets out a standardised way for things to be done within an organisation, creating a set of instructions for all employees to follow to reduce variation between results.

SOPs can be used for various scenarios across all kinds of industries. They’re particularly useful when a business has a certain set of actions that need to be followed in the right order to complete a task, such as conducting an audit, filling in a report or completing an analysis. They’re also frequently used to control risk, outlining a ‘safe’ procedure that employees should follow to avoid harm.

The usual format of a standard operating procedure is a document, either digital or physical, that employees all have access to. Different organisations will all have different standards of what needs to be included in an SOP and how this information should be shared, but the overall purpose is the same.

What is a policy?

A policy is a set of guidelines that describe an organisation’s stance on a topic and the way that this stance impacts behaviour and actions. It’s a high-level document that will be accessible to everyone, including people outside of the organisation, and is used as a way to uphold values and inform employees about what is expected of them.

Policies are sometimes directly informed by legislation in instances of things like safeguarding, health and safety or data collection. Other policies may be linked to industry regulations or workplace expectations, but will be more specific to the organisation and describe things like how salaries will be negotiated or holidays can be booked.

Many companies also use policies to provide a solid foundation for their actions which can help in scenarios where actions or decisions might be questioned. For example, if an employee claims that their dismissal was unfair, having a policy explaining how dismissals are handled and what procedures are involved in the decision can protect the employer and support their actions.

What is the difference between policies and procedures?

Perhaps the simplest way to think about the difference between policies and procedures is that policies are rules and procedures are instructions. Both are essential in a business, but both serve very different purposes.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown to help answer the question ‘What is the difference between policies and procedures?’.

Level of detail

The level of detail between an SOP and a workplace policy is a key thing that defines their differences. When it comes to creating one or the other, an SOP requires a lot more content and specificity to be successful.

You can think of SOP guidelines as a set of instructions that ensure that same outcome, minimising risk and creating stability. If these instructions are vague, there’s a lot more room for interpretation from the person following them. Without the correct level of detail, a standard operating procedure won’t actually be able to do what it was created for.

Policies, on the other hand, tend not to be too detailed because they need to be concise and quickly understood. A policy aims to outline a decision and/or a course of action in a straightforward way, so policy documents are often much broader and shorter than SOPs.


Whilst a standard operating procedure document may be created as the result of having to comply with legislation, policies are often much more closely linked to compliance. This is another of the key differences between SOPs and policies; their connection to regulatory and legal compliance.

Company policy can sometimes be a requirement of a piece of legislation, as some laws make it a requirement that an organisation has an official statement about their stance on a topic or their process for dealing with scenarios at work. These resulting policies will be used as evidence that a company is being compliant, so failing to follow what the policy outlines can have serious consequences.

SOPs on the other hand will focus on sharing an organisation’s approach to doing something. In the case of things like health and safety, standard operating procedures can give instructions that will help employees comply with relevant health and safety legislation, but the document itself isn’t usually directly informed by any official regulations.


When we’re talking about scope in this context, we mean the breadth of things in an organisation that policy vs procedure applies to. This links to the purpose that these both have as well as the specific vs broad difference.

The scope of an SOP is usually quite narrow, as they are generally used to explain how to complete a specific task The procedure guidelines will only really be applicable to one type of task, with multiple versions created for different processes.

Policies are designed to be much broader and general, outlining a stance or expectation that can be applied to a range of scenarios. They need to have a broad scope because their purpose is to guide the direction of a variety of things in a company, offering an overview of a topic that illustrates a position, expectations or potential consequences.


In terms of relevance in the difference between policies and procedures, we’re referring to how relevant the information in each is to the employees in an organisation. This is key in differentiating the two things, as policies apply to all employees and SOP guidelines only tend to be used by specific groups, depending on their purpose.

Company policy is company-wide, impacting everyone from the CEO right the way down to junior staff members. Interpretations of certain policies and their impact might differ slightly depending on roles, but everyone in an organisation is required to familiarise themselves with official policy and act accordingly.

There will be a range of SOPs created for different processes in a company, and these will only be relevant to the employees whose role requires them to follow the process. Therefore, SOPs might be designed and written with various audiences in mind, whilst SOPs have to be applicable and accessible to everyone.


Leading on from that point about policy vs procedure, another defining difference is the audience that these documents are created for. SOPs should be detailed and clear enough that anyone can follow the instructions, but will usually have been created for a specific department or role. 

Policy applies to everyone who works in an organisation but can sometimes also be shared with people outside of it, such as listing specific policies on a company website. For this reason, policy needs to be created and written in a way that is easy to understand no matter your background or your connection with the company.


Documents, statements and guidelines within a company all fall into a hierarchy of importance. A key difference between policies and procedures is where these both fall in this hierarchy.

Policy is some of the most important documentation that exists in a company, sitting right at the top alongside and interacting with things like mission statements, goals and values. They inform other documents that are created and provide an overview of expectations and opinions that characterise the organisation.

SOPs are lower in this hierarchy than company policies due to their specific nature and impact on only a specific process.


Adaptability is an interesting one when we’re talking about the differences between standard operating procedures and policies. Depending on how you interpret the term, the differences are different.

SOPs have to be very rigid in the instructions they offer and shouldn’t really leave any room for interpretation, as they need to be specific in the guidance they are giving. However, it’s much easier to make changes to an SOP, whether that’s clarifying a point or editing a phrase, which means that they are documents that can be quite easily adapted without any major impact.

In total contrast, policy can be considered quite adaptable because it encompasses broad statements which can be interpreted in different ways. However, in terms of actually adapting company policy, this is a lot more complicated to do and would have a widespread impact, so once policy has been created, it’s not that easy to adapt.

Strategic position

The final difference we’re going to discuss between policy and SOPs is the strategic position that both types of documents hold in an organisation. As dictated by their hierarchy, policy has a trickle-down impact on most of the things that are ‘beneath’ it, whilst SOPs have a much smaller impact on specific areas of an organisation.

Policy will often influence or be created to inform general business strategy, continuously guiding decisions and confirming a company’s position on different topics. SOPs may outline a process that is directly connected to business strategy, but are used as a tool to implement this strategy and do not have an effect on it.


Policies and procedures both serve an important role in an organisation, but have quite different purposes and features that make it straightforward to differentiate between them. Creating a standard operating procedure will be a very different process from coming up with company policy, and understanding the differences between them can help you ensure that you cover everything that’s required in both.

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