Codes of conduct are a must for modern business. But what purpose do they actually serve? We set out to answer the most common questions about them.
What exactly is a code of conduct?
In its simplest form, it’s a set of guidelines that details acceptable standards of behaviour and conduct in the workplace and establishes the ground rules for professional behaviour and responsibility.
Why do businesses need one?
Because it gives staff a clear and thorough understanding of the standards and expectations they must uphold in the performance of their job.
Does it only cover employees in the office?
No – it covers staff when they are: performing in the workplace; undertaking business trips; attending any work or work-related functions; and representing the business in any capacity.
Does it cover all levels of management?
Yes, as the code should be generic enough to cover every employee. In fact it’s especially crucial for management to follow it because they set the tone for how strictly the company is seen to adhere to its own policies.
What should it include?
Inclusions will differ across industries, countries and companies, but here are some of the more general inclusions that can feature.
- A mission statement outlining the company’s values, visions and guiding principles in terms of ethics, integrity and quality.
- Details of how people are expected to behave in dealing both with their colleagues and people outside the company.
- The firm’s policies and positions on bullying, discrimination, diversity, equal opportunity, illegal drugs and alcohol, and sexual harassment.
- Information on how copyright is held for products and services created during employment.
- Guidelines on how to behave in the electronic and digital realm, including safeguarding computer and network security.
- Information on what constitutes fraud, and illegal activities, and how they will be dealt with.
- Specifics on how to deal with gifts, entertainment, gratuities and other favours.
- A clear outline of how people will be held accountable for breaching the code.
- A guide on what to do, and who to deal with, when conflicts of interest arise – from those involving family members to financial interests.
- A clear policy on company confidentially and discretion both internally and with regards to external clients and vendors.
- Details of the company’s position on work-life balance.
- A focus on the risks and risks areas that come with working for the company and how workers and management are expected to behave in order to ensure safety.
- A clear chain of command for reporting breaches of the code.
- Information on what work may be performed outside this job, for example, working freelance in the same industry.
- Details on how charity and community fundraising – or political lobbying – may be conducted in the workplace.
- Information on how membership of professional groups and functions is supported.
Is it enough just to have a code of conduct staff can ask to see if they want?
In a word, no. You must take steps to ensure it is both implemented and publicised. Here are some ways to ensure staff are across it.
- Include it as part of the induction process for new staff.
- Include it in company handbooks.
- Have a copy accessible through the front page of the intranet.
- Have copies available on noticeboards and or in break areas.
- Deliver the content through group or one-on-one training sessions or as an online module.
However it is done for each employee, it’s important to have staff sign a document acknowledging they have read and understood the code of conduct so there can be no claims of ignorance if they breach it.
How can we ensure employees understand the code?
There’s many different ways you could do this. For example, if the code of conduct lists generic provisions that govern where people take cigarette breaks, back it up by physically showing them places that are acceptable. Similarly, if the code forbids the use of social media on company computers, make sure you talk them through every website this includes, not just letting them assume it applies only to obvious candidates such as Facebook and twitter.
How often does the code need to be updated?
It’s impossible to set a timeline, but the simple answer is that when the environment in which you operate has changed significantly, as has the way you do business, then it’s time for an upgrade. These changes could be anything from new government legislation to a move from a bricks and mortar store to an online shopfront. Remember, too, that when it is updated you will need to go through the above educational process again (even if it’s only for part of the code) and ensure employees sign a document to say that have read and understood the update.
Top tips for writing a good code of conduct
- Get initial input on inclusions from all areas of the business – from the chief executive to human resources, marketing, administration and more.
- Keep the language simple and to the point. Don’t try and speak in ‘lawyer’ talk and throw out the thesaurus – no one appreciates an unnecessarily long word or sentence.
- Write a draft and then circulate it heavily for feedback. Then, when it comes back, pay attention and make changes accordingly to produce a final version that is accurate, informative, easy to understand, and accessible.