Policies, Procedures and Handbooks

By: Leah Smith


A handbook contains much of the information an employee or board member  of an organization needs to know, all located in one place. A good handbook sets out the expectations  by documenting all of the rules an employee must follow, large and small. It should give guidance on everything from dress code to how to request time off for a family medical emergency. A handbook should also contain information about an organization’s management setup so that the employee understands how they fit in to the overall process of accomplishing the shared goals of their company. It is a good idea to think of a handbook as a resource that tells you about both your responsibilities and your rights.  In other words, it is where you go to better understand what you are required to do for your organization and what your organization is required to do for you. A handbook is primarily made up of a company’s policies and procedures. 

Policies Vs. Procedures

An Organization’s structure is built from their Policies and Procedures. An organization’s policies are the rules and boundaries for the organization. For example, an organization will have policies surrounding employee sick/vacation time, or even the rules for who can request time off and for how long. A good policy should explain why the rule is important, who it is directed toward, how it will be enforced and the consequences of not following the policy.  

On the other hand, the organization’s procedures are an outline for how certain tasks are to be completed. These are usually detailed in nature and can be as minute as outlining the specific steps for completing a task. For example, organizations often have procedures for how to request travel reimbursement, including a step-by-step guide for the correct form one would fill out and who would need to approve it.   

The Policies and Procedures of an organization are designed to provide employees and board members with a safety net for how to conduct their job that coincides with the mission of the organization. 

Evaluating Policies and Procedures

Whether you are a board member or an employee of an organization, having an ability to evaluate policies and procedures is critical. An Organization’s Policies and Procedures should ultimately be focused toward its mission, vision and goals. We have all been subject to what we saw as a silly or even unfair rule and it probably would have saved a lot of headache if someone would have been able to identify those problems before they did harm.

The first thing to be sure of is that a policy or procedure follows state and federal law. There are many legal requirements governing everything from when an employer needs to provide an employee with health insurance to when an employee is owed overtime pay to what is required as safe and sanitary working conditions. Being familiar with some of these laws is important for recognizing when an organization’s policies or procedures may not be complying with them.

Next, it is important to be sure that a policy or procedure is fair. Unfortunately, Policies and Procedures are often where we find codified ableism, sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc within an organization. Sometimes, the unfairness is easier to identify than other times.  For instance, if an organization’s dress code only mentions guidelines for women’s clothing, this is clearly discriminatory. Other times, the bias within a policy or procedure is more subtle because it is implicit. 

Implicit Bias in Policies and Procedures

Implicit Bias refers to the unconscious beliefs and stereotypes a person holds about another person or group that will inevitably affect how they understand and interact with that person or group. These biases are usually based off of a person’s disability, race, sex, gender identity, or age. For example, implicit biases about race may cause a person to lock their car doors when they drive through the “bad” section of town. This is in contrast to having an explicit bias that we are aware of and identify with.  An example of an explicit bias would be if a person belonged to a white supremicist group like the Klu Klux Klan. 

Unfortunately, implicit bias can be built into an organization’s structure through its policies and procedures. Since Policies and Procedures are intended to provide the rules and outlines for how an organization will operate, these biases can inherently be snuck in as ‘how we do things’ and ‘how people are supposed to act.’ 

Since implicit bias is not something a person is even conscious of, it isn’t something we can usually identify within ourselves without help. One thing you can do to start to understand your own bias is to take an online test (see link below). Trainings are even available that can help staff members understand how implicit bias may be affecting their work.  

However, even if we as individuals can begin to explore our implicit biases, organizations still need to address how these biases can be embedded in policies and procedures. Further, just because a person, say a non-disabled, cisgender, straight white woman, has the ability to perceive the implicit gender biases in a policy or procedure that might effect her, it doesn’t mean that she will be able to effectively identify other biases that she doesn’t experience.  This means that any individual’s perspective is always incomplete and we need many people from a wide range of diverse viewpoints to work together to identify and remedy implicit biases within an organization. In other words, evaluating policies and procedures for harmful implicit bias needs to always be a team effort.