A code of conduct is a set of values, rules, standards, and principles that your employees must comply with during working hours. This document establishes guidelines for employee conduct and your expectations in terms of internal and external practices and behaviors.
Why is this important?
For one thing, businesses that promote work ethics and good behavior through a professional code of conduct are far more likely to attract and retain top talent. Moreover, when a company publishes its code externally, potential customers can learn more about the company’s ethics, values, and morals. As a result, it’s much easier to enhance consumer trust and loyalty.
So, what exactly is a code of conduct and what should you include in yours? How do you enforce your code of conduct?
Read on to find out.
What’s a professional code of conduct?
A professional code of conduct is a document that outlines a series of company policies and procedures related to how your employees conduct themselves. It often includes a description of your company values and ethics, guidelines for employee behavior, and defined internal and external practices. It also includes your disciplinary processes for employee misconduct and the potential consequences that an employee might face.
A code of conduct can take many forms. Some organizations focus more on general guidance for how employees should behave when they represent the company. This includes promoting the company’s values, ethics, and beliefs. Others prefer to take a more structured approach and include specific rules relating to a variety of internal practices.
Generally speaking, the latter is much more likely to help you build an aligned culture founded on shared values and behaviors. Moreover, including specific standards also ensures you stay compliant with regulations relating to harassment and discrimination, for example.
Think of your code of conduct as a framework for the organization that you want to build and reflect to the outside world. The more your employees understand the importance of following your guidelines on employee conduct, the easier it will be to build an employer brand based on values, ethics, and corporate responsibility.
Code of conduct vs. code of ethics definition
Is a code of conduct the same as a code of ethics?
Although these terms are closely related and often used interchangeably, there are a few subtle differences.
Code of ethics definition: A broader set of principles that reflect your company values and ethics. A code of ethics serves as a framework for honesty and transparency. It also outlines broader principles that employees should reflect when they represent the business. These principles include the organization’s mission and values, how employees should approach problems, and the standards to which you hold them.
Code of conduct definition: A more focused set of guidelines relating to the ethics of a business. Often includes all of the above. However, a code of conduct also usually includes defined rules for employee actions and behaviors. This includes specific guidance for handling issues like harassment, discrimination, and conflicts of interest.
Generally speaking, both these codes are usually combined in a single document.
What should a code of conduct include?
Although all businesses are different, there are a few specific aspects that you should include in your code of conduct.
Let’s take a look.
Company values, ethics, and morals
One of the most important aspects to include in your code of conduct is a description of your company’s values, ethics, and morals. This is especially important if you publish your code of conduct through your website, as customers and potential employees can gain a better understanding of who you are as a business.
This might include values relating to:
- Business ethics
- Corporate social responsibility
- Environmental responsibility
- Employee rights
- Commitment and responsibility
- Diversity and inclusion
At an internal level, your values, ethics, and morals can help you guide your employees so that they understand the behaviors that they should reflect in order to align with the values of the business. It also helps them understand how the organization puts its values into practice. This includes guidance on employee rights, ethical business practices, honesty and transparency, and expectations relating to equity and inclusion.
Make sure you are clear about the values that your business holds itself to, how you put these values into action, and the commitments you expect from your employees in this regard.
Guidelines for employee behavior
As we mentioned above, a professional code of conduct often includes specific guidelines for employee behavior. These standards regulate how employees should conduct themselves whilst at work.
There are a few benefits to this. Firstly, when you define clear guidelines, everyone understands exactly how they should behave. This helps you avoid misunderstandings or claims of unfair treatment. Secondly, a clear framework helps you develop a better working environment where employees can maintain professional relationships with their managers and colleagues. Thirdly, being clear and transparent about actions and behaviors that you will not tolerate helps you stay compliant with laws and regulations relating to harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
There are a number of topics you can cover here, including how employees should treat their colleagues, how they should communicate with each other, and specific guidelines on meeting performance expectations. Ultimately, the clearer you are, the easier it will be for your employees to understand your expectations. And this is crucial for creating a healthy, safe, and productive working environment.
Internal & external practices
To get the most from your code of conduct, you should include a description of all your internal practices, in line with your defined policies and procedures. This helps your employees understand how they should handle specific situations that might arise during their working day. It also helps them better understand how your internal processes work and how they align with your company values.
Examples of internal practices that you can describe in your code of conduct include:
- Equal opportunities
- Discrimination and harassment
- Health and safety in the workplace
- Substance abuse
- Training and development
- Dress code
- Personal time off policy
- Inclement weather policy
- Break policy
- Remote work policy
- Attendance and punctuality policy
- Use of personal cell phones while at work
- Legal compliance
- Information security
- Use of company property
- Facility security
- Protecting intellectual property
- Misconduct and disciplinary policy
It’s also a good idea to detail your expectations in terms of external practices. This will help your employees understand how they should conduct themselves when they interact with customers and other company stakeholders.
This section will usually include guidelines on:
- Confidentiality (company and client)
- Intellectual property
- Customer communication requirements
- Conflict of interests
- The importance of transmitting respect and professionalism at all times.
Make sure you also consider any requirements relating to industry compliance regulations.
Misconduct and consequences of code violations
Finally, it’s crucial that you include a detailed description of how you handle misconduct and what the consequences are if an employee violates your code of conduct. Make sure you are clear that your organization doesn’t tolerate certain actions and behaviors and you will investigate any and all claims of misconduct.
Above all, make sure you define clear incident reporting processes for claims of:
- Abuse or assault
- Illegal activity
How to write a code of conduct
Before you begin writing your professional code of conduct, you need to decide who will be involved in the process. This document will usually be managed by HR, but it’s a good idea to include managers, employees, and other stakeholders, too. If you’re a large organization, you might decide to create a code of conduct team to implement and manage your policies.
Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to get started. Here’s what you need to do.
Establish your priorities
The first thing to consider is the values that are most important to your organization. Establishing these before anything else will help guide the direction of your code of conduct. As a result, your business will have a clear identity that your employees and other stakeholders can understand.
What does your business value? What is its mission? How do you define a positive culture and working environment? How do you want your stakeholders to see you?
It’s also important to consider any ethical issues your company might have faced in the past. Why did they arise? How can you prevent these issues from happening again? Are there any issues that other businesses in your industry might have faced that you have yet to address?
Collect employee feedback
As we mentioned at the start of this section, it’s a good idea to get your employees involved in the process. After all, your code of professional conduct directly impacts them so you should take their feedback into consideration. By participating in the process, they will be more open to your guidelines and understand why it’s so important to put these practices in writing. Their support will also make it much easier to enforce your code of conduct once implemented.
There are a few ways you can do this. You can share an employee survey or hold one-to-one meetings with long-term employees who understand the nature of your business. Ask them what they would like to see in the document and if there are any issues relating to conduct that the organization needs to address. You could even share a draft of your code of conduct with a few select employees once written to find out if they have any suggestions for improvement. This will help you align your code with the values and expectations of your employees, too.
Define a compliance officer
Although it’s important to have the support of your managers when you implement your code of conduct, it’s also a good idea to assign the role of compliance officer to a member of your HR team. This person will be responsible for applying and enforcing your code of professional conduct. They will also be responsible for updating your policy as your business grows and develops.
There are a few things to consider before you select the right person for this role. Firstly, they should be a long-standing employee who understands the values of your organization. They need to have a strong commitment to the success of your business, and an in-depth understanding of all your internal policies and procedures. They also need to be reliable and trustworthy and have strong interpersonal skills so that they can effectively handle any claims of misconduct.
Write your code of conduct policy
Once you’ve done all the above, you’ll be ready to write your code of conduct policy. Start by creating an initial draft. Don’t forget to include a statement on your disciplinary procedures in the event that an employee violates your guidelines. This might include verbal warnings, written warnings, suspension, or termination in the case of gross misconduct.
After you’ve clearly defined every aspect of your code of professional conduct, share it with a few key employees to collect feedback and suggestions. Then, once you’ve done that, write your final draft, implement it, and share it with all your employees. Make sure your code of conduct is easily accessible and that employees understand what it is and how it works. It’s a good idea to include a copy in your employee handbook. That way, you can be sure that both current and future employees have access to it.
You could also include a copy of your code (or a summary) on your website so that customers and potential employees understand your values as a business.
Code of conduct examples
Although not every business has one, a professional code of conduct can help you clearly define the standards that you hold your employees to. That way, all your key stakeholders understand what your ethics and values are. This can not only help you nurture a more positive working environment, but it can also be a great way to build your brand and reputation.
Here are a couple of examples of well-known companies that have implemented a code of conduct aligned with their core business values.
The multinational financial services corporation has invested a lot of time and money into promoting its code of conduct. Using the slogan “Integrity. Everyday. Everywhere.”, Visa strives to communicate its commitment to earning the trust of its clients by meeting the highest ethical standards with every service it offers.
Visa’s code of conduct is based on six principles:
- Lead by example. Be accountable, treat others with respect, and demonstrate a passion for our business.
- Communicate openly. Promote a shared vision, communicate effectively, and value the perspectives of others.
- Enable and inspire. Inspire success, remove barriers, and value inclusivity and diversity.
- Excel with partners. Build strong relationships inside and outside of Visa, provide excellent customer service, and take a solution-oriented approach.
- Act decisively. Challenge the status quo, decide quickly, and learn from our mistakes.
- Collaborate. Break down silos, engage with our colleagues, and deliver as one team.
Visa’s code of conduct also includes detailed explanations of all its business ethics policies and a comprehensive list of resources that employees can access if they have any doubts. This includes a confidential compliance hotline, a business conduct office, a conflict-of-interest program, and an employee assistance program.
The French cosmetics company L’Oreal has also made a public commitment to its code of conduct. This document defines the L’Oreal Spirit, including the company’s values and business ethics. It also explains in detail how the organization respects its commitments as a business, as an employer, and as a responsible corporate citizen.
The section on “Respecting our commitments as a business” details L’Oreal’s business practices relating to:
- Product safety and quality
- Advertising and marketing
- Supplier selection and fair treatment of suppliers
- Fair competition
- Conflicts of interests
- Gifts and entertainment
- Bribery and facilitation payments
- Confidential information
- Representing the company
- Privacy and data protection
- Use of company resources
- Financial and business records and the fight against money laundering
- Insider trading
The rest of the document focuses on L’Oreal’s guidelines on how employees should treat each other and how they interact with the wider world. It also includes specific processes for reporting concerns and claims of misconduct.
Tips to enforce your company’s code of conduct
Let’s finish by taking a look at a few tips and best practices to help you enforce your code of conduct once you have implemented it:
- Make sure it’s easy to understand. Remove as much jargon as possible and provide detailed explanations whenever needed.
- Cover all situations. Make sure you cover all areas relating to conduct and business ethics. Consider any potential ethical issues that might arise and detail your processes for handling them.
- Make sure it’s accessible. Share your code once implemented and make sure employees are able to easily access it. Include a copy in your employee handbook and give it to all new employees during your onboarding process.
- Get senior management approval. Involve your senior managers in the process, collect their feedback and suggestions, and get their final approval. You could even include a statement from your CEO in your policy.
- Train your departmental managers. Make sure they understand your code of conduct and how they should handle any claims of misconduct in their teams. Also, remind them that they must lead by example.
- Highlight processes for reporting misconduct. This includes who employees should inform and how they should report any incidents. You could even include a few examples of where breaches might occur.
- Investigate all claims of misconduct. If an employee reports an incident, investigate it. If you don’t apply this rule consistently, it could result in claims of discrimination, unfair treatment, or even unfair dismissal.
Ultimately, a well-written code of conduct helps you build a solid brand reputation. It also helps you build a more cohesive, positive, and productive working environment. As a result, you can develop a workforce that respects the company and the wider community and effectively reflects your values and ethics as an organization.