Setting expectations is important in several areas of life.
For example, when you rent a new apartment with a roommate, you’ll likely set an expectation that the front door remains locked at all times.
In the business world, setting expectations is especially crucial, as doing so provides clarity for all employees and sets the company up for success. And success starts with writing a comprehensive code of conduct.
What is a code of conduct?
A code of conduct outlines what employers expect from their employees regarding their specific set of values, standards, rules, and principles. It also includes details for acceptable behaviors and norms employees must follow.
It’s common for businesses to incorporate its core values and its mission into their code of conduct. The code should be used as guidelines to set a solid foundation for other company policies. These details about employee behavior and interactions should be within a company’s employee handbook.
Businesses writing their code of conduct typically turn to harassment prevention software as to deliver standard learning content surrounding rules, principles, and standards that employees should uphold.
Code of conduct vs. code of ethics
A code of conduct is often confused with a code of ethics, but the two are different.
A company’s code of conduct is a set of rules that guides behavior. It’s a collection of principles, and behaviors that the business believes play a part in its success. It also typically incorporates elements of company culture.
A code of ethics is a set of principles that makes it possible for employees to know right from wrong. In a sense, it’s broader than a code of conduct and provides principles that affect the employee mindset and decision-making process.
Both components should be a part of the employee handbook.
Why writing a code of conduct is important
Whether your business has ten employees or 1,000, everyone involved, from the CEO to the interns, and even the board of directors, benefit from knowing the details of a code of conduct. When leadership puts their expectations in writing , they create a framework where everyone knows how to provide support.
By writing a code of conduct, a business:
- Elaborates on company values. The code of conduct demonstrates the values a company seeks to uphold, highlighting acceptable and unacceptable behavior. If it's decided to share the code publicly, people interested in applying for open roles can learn more about their potential employers’ business ethics, values, and morals before interviewing.
- Guides behavior in the workplace. Clear expectations make it simple to create a healthy working environment where all employees behave professionally. The code of conduct should steer behavior by aligning conduct with company values.
- Adheres to applicable laws. Since the code of conduct addresses inappropriate behavior, like harassment and harassment prevention training methods, it ensures employees act within the law and that everyone feels safe at work. Additionally, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 requires public companies to implement codes of conduct.
- Improves employee morale. Employees who treat one another equally and with respect tend to make betterteam members. When the code of conduct reinforces this behavior, current employees have a boost in morale, which can help retain top talent.
What to include in a code of conduct
The information included in a code of conduct details work policies, acceptable and unacceptable behavior, actions, and consequences. It’s a guide for employees to access during onboarding and throughout their organizational tenure.
Every company operates differently, so a code of conduct doesn’t adhere to a template. Regardless, the below information explains what each section may include.
Company values, ethics, and responsibility
This section of the code of conduct details any topics related to the values the organization upholds and how it intends to put them into action.
Information about values may include:
Environmental responsibility example: We at [Company Name] are committed to ensuring that all steps within our manufacturing process reduce pollution, waste, emissions, single-use plastic, and/or natural resource consumption.
Employee behavior and action
In the employee behavior and action section of the code of conduct, leadership should go over what is expected regarding performance and behavior. This can include elements like how to treat fellow employees or specifics regarding how to perform their role professionally. It can also describe topics about employee behavior.
Examples of behavior and action within this section are:
- Honesty regarding work commitments
- Standards of professionalism
- Use of social media pertaining to if it's appropriate to be on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram during working hours
- Use of company assets – usually rules outlining a company car, phone, or computer.
- Communication rules.
- Romantic relationships with other employees.
- Disciplinary actions.
Use of social media example: During standard working hours, [Company Name] only permits employees to use non-professional social media platforms during breaks. Pre-approved templates will be provided when posting company-related content on professional social media outlets like LinkedIn.
For all other company-related content, employees must express they’re posting a thought or opinion on behalf of themselves, not the company. All opinions must be respectful of the company. If an employee has a comment or concern about the company, please seek out a manager or a human resources team member instead of posting a complaint online.
The internal policies portion of the code of conduct covers day-to-date business operations. This section aims to give employees the information needed for questions that come up more than others, like how much paid time off they receive or what to do during a weather emergency.
Some internal practices this section should detail are:
- The company dress code.
- Annual leave, paid time off, and holiday time.
- Inclement weather policy.
- The onboarding process.
- Attendance, tardiness, and punctuality.
- Use of personal cell phones during working hours.
- The chain of command.
- Legal and HR compliance.
Dress code example: [Company Name]'s dress code is relaxed or business casual. Employees are allowed to wear jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts, and leggings. Formal business attire, like dress shirts, slacks, and blazers, is also appropriate. Avoid clothing that features swearing, rips, holes, crude statements, and illegal substances.
If a client, customer, or investor is visiting the office, [Company Name] will provide an appropriate advanced warning where a dress code change may be necessary. These instances may call for formal dresses, skirts, slacks, khakis, button-down shirts, blouses, and closed-toe shoes.
On the flip side, a code of conduct should have external policies, too. This section details how employees should behave when dealing with external parties, like customers, clients, or outside stakeholders.
This section clarifies information regarding:
- Conflict of interest.
- Intellectual property policies.
- Requirements surrounding customer communication.
Confidentiality example: Employees at [Company Name] are responsible for ensuring that confidential information related to customers, clients, work colleagues, suppliers, and all operations is properly protected. Such information cannot be shared, including on social media, unless prior approval is given.
Finally, a section that details behavior qualifying as misconduct is necessary. Technically, misconduct can happen in the above sections, but here you have to explicitly name inappropriate behavior.
This portion must include policies surrounding:
- Sexual harassment.
- Abuse or assault.
- Reporting misconduct.
Discrimination example: We at [Company Name] follow the laws enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which states it is illegal to discriminate against anyone, whether they be an applicant or current employee, because of race, religion, color, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), age, national origin, disability, or genetic information.
How to handle a breach in code of conduct
Knowing how to manage a breach in a code of conduct is difficult. If an employee doesn’t uphold the professional standards outlined in the code of conduct, taking appropriate action may be necessary.
Ultimately, how this breach is handled depends on what element of the code of conduct has been broken. For instance, disciplinary proceedings for someone using social media during working hours and for someone showing up to work under the influence of drugs will not be the same.
That being said, it’s wise to outline in the code of conduct that disciplinary action, including termination, for breaching a code of conduct may be necessary.
Tips for writing a code of conduct policy
When writing a code of conduct policy, human resources teams should remember these six tips to make sure it’s as comprehensive and clear as possible.
- Consider your industry. For example, a code of conduct will differ for companies with employees in a school versus those in a factory.
- Avoid legal jargon. The code of conduct should be written using clear language that anyone can understand. Legal jargon can be unclear depending on who’s reading it.
- Make it accessible. Once complete, the code should be stored within a human resources information system (HRIS) so that employees can access it at any time.
- Get the entire HR team involved. Everyone within the human resource department should be included in the creation of the code of conduct. The entire team should sign off regarding key details to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.
- Include a buy-in from senior leadership. Consider starting the code of conduct with a note or message from the CEO, showing support from senior leadership regarding the details spelled out within the following pages.
- Ensure it’s comprehensive and full of examples. The code of conduct should feature clear examples employees may experience and an FAQ section answering important questions.
Code of conduct examples
Sometimes it’s best to learn from examples. Below are some codes of conduct written by well-known and trusted brands.
- Coca-Cola: The soft drink brand makes it simple for employees to find answers to exactly what they’re looking for with a clear table of contents. From there, team members can look for details regarding the brand, protecting assets, avoiding conflicts of interest, and working as a team.
- Google: From things you expect, like integrity, principles, and discrimination details, to things you may not, like the dog policy, Google’s code of conduct is informative and straightforward as it outlines the key details employees should know.
- IBM: Their code of conduct is all about trust, and employees see that’s the common theme throughout this document. IBM kicks things off with an easy-to-read table of contents, a message from the CEO, and then dives right into their guidelines.
- Apple: This code of conduct starts with “The way we do business,” which sets the tone right away for key details about workplace behaviors, protecting the brand, individual accountability, and business integrity.
- Mastercard: It’s easy to tell right away that Mastercard’s code of conduct hammers home the brand, theme, and colors. It starts with a message from the CEO and follows it up with a note from the board of directors. It also offers a table of contents so employees can jump ahead to the answers they’re looking for.
It's good to have high standards
Especially when it comes to the code of conduct your business upholds. From details about business ethics and social media usage to dress code and harassment, providing this information to employees ensures a safe and productive working environment.
Learn more about what your company can do to avoid a hostile work environment.