Instructions vs. Guidelines vs. Rules: Which is Which & Why it Matters

Agnee Ghosh
August 30, 2022
min read
January 10, 2024
Photo credit
Instructions, guidelines and rules give directions for completing certain actions or tasks. In this article, we cover how to use guidelines, instructions and rules successfully in your company.
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Instructions, guidelines and rules are sometimes (actually, always) all conflated with one another. Most people who write down work instructions usually refer to them as guidelines, and vice versa. 

But does it really matter? Well, only if you want to make sure your team has everything they need to succeed! 

If you know the differences between work instructions, guidelines and rules, you'll have a much stronger understanding of:

  • How to write process documentation.
  • How to create thorough, adequate training materials for any purpose. 

As with any endeavor, the better the documentation, the more organized the result.

First up: what are instructions?

Work instructions outline the steps to take in order to complete a task. To put it another way, they’re really particular. Any action described in a process should have corresponding steps outlined in a work instruction. A work instruction can be: 

  • Job-related visual aids or help of different kinds.
  • A set of events is presented in the order in which they occurred.
  • Features detailed directions for building.
  • Anybody from the maker or the builder, with any necessary adjustments for the particular location or company.

After reading the instructions provided, employees should have no doubts about how to do their responsibilities. No ambiguity is permitted — they must be clear and precise. 

You should do everything you can to prevent your employees from becoming confused by only giving info that matters. 

Why are work instructions important?

You need to maintain and support the procedures that make up a company's day-to-day activities; this is where effective work instructions come in.

Essentially your team should share, internalize and practice the approved method for completing a project. 

In this way, it doesn't matter who’s in charge of a particular work or project, and you can always count on a reliable output. Work instructions strengthen procedures and help all team members carry out company activities. 

Try Scribe's Work Instructions Generator to get started for free!

What are the benefits of work instructions?

Instructions help companies improve and streamline their operations. Beyond that, job instructions have the following advantages:

  • They’re useful for cutting down on potential harm and avoiding mishaps. The best work instructions are the result of iterative refining and have the safest method for each task. 
  • Long-term, they end up being a time-saver. Detailed directions for workers to follow and save the time they'll need to fix errors in the future and aid in their initial training.
  • They help to ensure that procedures and systems are always being upgraded, making it easier for employees to accomplish their tasks more effectively over time.
  • Work instructions assist workers' problem-solving abilities and show them how to carry out standard activities. 

Depending on the job, work instructions can have a variety of structures and contents. However, the majority of job instructions include these crucial components:

  • Task Name And A Brief Description
  • Objectives Or Anticipated Outcomes
  • Task's Objective
  • Size Of The Project
  • Tools Or Abilities Needed
  • Standards For Safety
  • Directions For The Work In Detail
  • Expected Result For Each Action

Next, what are guidelines?

Guidelines are broad assertions, suggestions or administrative directives intended to carry out processes and accomplish the goals of a policy. 

A guideline is a statement that helps someone choose an action to do. The purpose of a guideline is to standardize activity based on best practices.

Any business can give guidelines to increase consistency and, ideally, the quality of work. 

Given the rapid pace at which conditions can shift, guidelines require more frequent revision than standards or rules. Usually, you need to establish several procedures to meet legal requirements.. For instance, some jurisdictions mandate that businesses carry workers' compensation insurance to pay for medical expenses related to on-the-job accidents.

Employers' compensation policies are often outlined in the employee handbook and/or contract. Other standards in the workplace, often referred to as "business policies" or "codes of conduct," are unique to companies or at least widespread within sectors but aren’t mandated by law.

A guideline is only a recommendation, not an absolute rule. Usually, you can use "guidelines" and "best practices" synonymously.

In other words, it's a blueprint or rationale for establishing norms or picking a path forward.

What are the benefits of guidelines?

There are several reasons why workplace guidelines are beneficial:

  • Ensure your employees know the expectations and outputs of different actions.
  • Give people a framework for making decisions in everyday settings. 
  • Make sure everyone in the company is on the same page when responding to issues. 
  • Show that you're serious about treating employees fairly and equitably. 
  • Offer a standard procedure for resolving disputes to reduce allegations of favoritism and bias. 
  • Establish a transparent procedure for assigning responsibilities. 
  • Make it possible to share information with new hires.
  • Better prepare yourself to fight allegations of violating employer responsibilities, such as health and safety laws.

Example of a guideline:

1. Attendance

Problems like arriving late, leaving early, and missing work without warning can all be addressed by a comprehensive attendance policy. You’ll find typical disciplinary measures and their definitions in attendance regulations. Organizations often have policies outlining what constitutes tardiness and how the business responds — with one example being more than five minutes late to work or lunch. 

2. Code of conduct

When it comes to the workplace, a code of conduct policy is a must-have. Common concerns covered by policies of this type include:

  • How to dress appropriately and how not to dress.
  • Information on firm projects and activities must be kept secret.
  • Relational and behavioral aspects of human interaction.
  • Inappropriate use of electronic devices or social networking sites while on the job. 

An additional component of a code of conduct policy is a notice to employees that breaches will result in disciplinary action. These guideline elements clarify how important the topics covered are and should be taken seriously.

3. Equal opportunity

Equal opportunity is an anti-discrimination policy that protects workers and job applicants from discrimination based on their age, culture, race, gender, religion, or other personal traits. Because it encourages managers and employees alike to treat everyone with respect, this policy is crucial. In addition, it facilitates conformity with EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) laws.

What are rules?

Simply said, business rules are prescriptive guidelines that set the parameters that an organization conducts its operations in. 

Without well-defined business rules and procedures, companies typically struggle to accomplish objectives or suffer from low staff morale and disappointed consumers.

Business norms are not a product of the information age.They were developed or invented at the grassroots level to give the most effective method of conducting business. 

However, it wasn't until the early 1990s that business rules were widely adopted for companies. 

Most companies now see business rules as necessary to their foundation. System flows, also known as procedure flow charts, are used to map out a company's operations.

Corporate rules facilitate productivity, uniformity, predictability and other positive outcomes when you develop them properly. They also guarantee that your operations continue, no matter what. 

What are the benefits of rules?

The most fundamental advantage of having rules is safeguarding the business. Employees stay safe and you avoid legal trouble. 

To ensure that employees know what is expected of them and what will happen if they break the rules, it’s important to enforce a consistent set of rules. It creates a structured workplace where employees know what they should and shouldn’t do, and can comfortably be themselves without worrying if they’ll get in trouble. 

As a result, turnover rates go down, productivity goes up and employee morale improves.

Financial success is important to the company's operations — it’s an investment to bring on new employees. Slower production times and lower revenues are direct outcomes of a lack of innovation or efficiency.

Simply put: employee morale runs a direct line to productivity. Treat your employees well and give them a structure to work with. 

People who like their work are less likely to miss days or be late. And if workers know exactly how things should be done, they’re more likely to notice and bring up issues.

The team accomplishes more when everyone follows the rules and regulations, which can only happen when they’re clear.

And as things run well internally, you’ll see customer satisfaction spike. 

There are fewer issues to resolve and more positive feelings inside an organization when consumers are satisfied. Unhappy customers are expensive. Rules can minimize the major costs associated with product returns, restocking and handling dissatisfied consumers. 

Plus, happy customers talk. When you execute things properly, you just might turn a customer into a brand ambassador. 

Consumers are more likely to purchase from brands they have a positive impression of. If your team is playing by the rules, that's a great first step toward establishing a strong reputation.

Examples of business rules

While you can develop business rules in many different ways, here are some examples to reference: 

  • Granting various levels of management authority over different types of invoices based on their dollar amounts.
  • Calculating bonus payment and potential for sales staff.
  • Holding a set of mandatory inquiries: If the response is no, then that supplier is not eligible for that collaboration.
  • When reserving a room, a hotel uses a series of interrogatory prompts to ascertain the guest's preferences and decide the cost.

These descriptions should help to clarify the distinctions between rules, work instructions, and guidelines. These can help you save time and make your company's management paperwork easier to understand. 

Writing instructions, guidelines or rules? Take advantage of automation tools. 

Scribe is a step-by-step guide generator that documents your processes for you. 

Auto-generate how-tos with text and screenshots. You can edit a Scribe to include tips, alerts, additional steps and further detail to match the type of doc you’re writing.

Here’s a Scribe guideline that documents a simple Excel best practice.

‎And here’s that Scribe added to a larger process doc, using Scribe Pages. 

‎Scribe Pages lets you create larger instructions or rules by adding Scribes with extra text, video, images and more. 

Take advantage of Scribe today to create your own process documentation templates. Then share or embed your Scribe in any knowledge base. 

How about sharing the same Scribe in several places at once? Not an issue. Scribes enable universal updates — making sure your best practices live wherever the Scribe does. 

With Scribe, creating guidelines, instructions and rules can be: 

  • Efficient: Cut the time needed to record processes by 15x.
  • Consistent: You only need to do the process once to create accurate documentation. 
  • Accessible: Make even the most complicated procedures easy for staff to understand and follow.

So what are you waiting for? Create your process documentation today with Scribe!

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