Word Confusion: Clarity Needed

We here at Cohort enjoy the opportunity to assist those in the larger writing community by providing a bit of clarity to commonly used terms. We were recently asked the following question:

Q: Could you please clarify the differences between policies, standards, guidelines, and procedures? Most people I know, myself included, struggle with explaining these terms.

A: Let’s start this explanation by providing you with relevant definitions from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/


  • a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions
  • a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures especially of a governmental body


  • something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example: criterion <quite slow by today’s standards>
  • something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality


  • an indication or outline of policy or conduct


  • a particular way of accomplishing something or of acting
  • a series of steps followed in a regular definite order <legal procedure> <a surgical procedure>
  • a traditional or established way of doing things

I can now hear you say to yourself: “I could have looked the words up online myself!” so let’s put these words into a graphical form:

From the image, it can be seen that it is ‘policy’ that provides the overall control or sets the direction for any work that will follow, and must be signed by a recognized management authority. The ‘standards’ that are established are uniformly governed by the policy, and compliance is mandatory. Following these standards, ‘guidelines’ are suggested actions to consider if there are no set standards, from which new standards may be developed. Finally, ‘procedures’ provide specific instructions on how to perform desired actions.

Policy provides the ‘why’ something needs to be done, the standards and guidelines tell us ‘what’ is required, and the procedures give instructions on ‘how’ a task is to be completed.

Is this clear yet? Let’s look at a plain English example.

Here at Cohort, we enjoy having personal gatherings … yes, we actually get along with each other! As part of these gatherings, someone must bring a dessert (policy). Let’s say that a cake is the typical dessert (standard). Then, if we know of any dietary restrictions or other preferences (guidelines), the volunteer can either stop by a shop and buy an appropriate cake, or get creative and make one from scratch (procedure).

Hopefully, these explanations and example have assisted you in your search for clarity.

For more information about how to improve your written communications, or for assistance in creating clarity in words and how they are used, feel free to ask questions by contacting us today at info@cohorttechcomm.com, where we can also provide you with a free, no-obligation quote for any of your other documentation needs.