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How a Code of Conduct can enable your organization to do and be better

How a Code of Conduct can enable your organization to do and be better

6 Minute Read

Creating a Code of Conduct for your organization not only provides ethical guideposts, but also helps its members discover how much they have in common.

Leader, Consulting – Organizational Renewal

Table of contents

A Code of Conduct is a concise, written document that defines the moral and ethical guideposts governing the behaviour of all members of an organization. It shouldn’t contain every rule and regulation the organization has created, but instead offer something that everyone can refer to and easily read. Once read, any member of an organization at any level should be able to apply the essence of the Code of Conduct to their own decisions and behaviour and to the behaviour of others.

Because your organization and the world around it are changing, and you need to develop standards that reflect your organization’s culture and aspirations as they relate to the community today.

Your board of directors may be asking you to develop a Code of Conduct. Your clients, customers and stakeholders want to understand where you stand and how you do business. Perhaps members of your organization are experiencing a disconnect between the values the company promotes and the day-to-day reality of the interactions they encounter. A Code of Conduct can help members of your organization, and those considering becoming a part of it, know what type of organization they’re working for.

A Code of Conduct can also create clarity around expected behaviour when members of an organization interact with customers and clients, helping to set a tone of overall respect in the workplace. On a more practical level, a Code reduces the risks of conflict, litigation, unwanted publicity and even grievances in an organized labour environment.


Which characteristics make a Code of Conduct effective?

In helping organizations to develop a Code of Conduct, we’ve found five features that stand out in making that Code work well for them:

Clarity 1. Clarity

A Code of Conduct should tell you who is covered and why, describe what happens when a violation occurs and outline what to do when a violation is identified.

organization 2. Organization

A Code of Conduct should be well organized, including a table of contents. This is not a catch-all document or a wish list. Topics should be limited to what really matters to the organization and its members.

Relevant Examples 3. Inclusion of relevant examples

The Code should contain some realistic examples of situations organization members might experience at all levels of employment, so they can understand how the Code of Conduct will be applied.

Visual appeal 4. Visual appeal

The document should be easy to read and navigate and well designed, so that members find it easy and compelling to read. The document should be written in plain language, simple to navigate and well designed, so that members find it easy and compelling to read. The Code should be readily available to everyone who wants to refer to it and accessible to people with disabilities.



Clear link 5. A clear link to the organization’s culture, purpose and values

This is probably the most critical feature of an effective Code of Conduct. As part of the existing organizational culture, the Code must be consistent with its values, business ethics and its approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). An organization’s culture will determine the contents and direction of the Code and to some degree whether its members will honour and adhere to it.

An effective Code can’t be written by one person, an outside expert or a small team. It can’t be borrowed, copied or adapted from another organization. It needs to be written from the ground up, through broad consultation with stakeholders throughout the organization. That can include employee groups, labour organizations, the board of directors and individuals whose participation ensures that the Code reflects the actual values of the people in the organization. That way, the Code and its development help inspire not only buy-in at every level, but also pride in themselves and in the organization.

External stakeholders, including customers, clients, partners and members of the public, can also play a vital role in contributing to the dialogue, where appropriate.

Even the act of bringing stakeholders within an organization together pays dividends. Employees who see themselves as belonging to diverse groups will realize that their values have much in common with others in the organization, and the exercise of creating the Code promotes alignment and a sense of belonging.

Everybody should see it. It should be introduced to every existing member of the organization and read by every new hire as they’re being onboarded. It should be a public document accessible to anyone outside the organization as well. It signals to the world that the members of the organization and the organization itself are holding themselves to specific standards of accountability. It also invites customers, clients and the public to hold members of the organization accountable for their choices and actions.

If you have any doubt or hesitation about presenting your Code of Conduct to the world, it indicates that there may be more work to be done in aligning your organization’s internal culture with your Code. 

Often, a third-party consultant can oversee the process and provide the objectivity required to ensure that the Code of Conduct represents everyone in the organization. 

Here’s a five-step approach that has been employed successfully with various organizations:

1. Define the current culture

Measure the current culture of the organization through a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches. This is a critical step, because the Code of Conduct must be consistent with culture to be effective.

2. Articulate the goal: “Who do we want to be?”

Through consultations with your organization’s stakeholders, develop a shared view of values and discuss expected behaviours through real-life examples. “Who do we want to be?” is a forward-looking question that allows stakeholders to envision a future state that improves on what they are today. This is a foundational part of the process, because a Code of Conduct must reflect the organization’s core values.

3. Design the Code of Conduct and build alignment

Develop the Code of Conduct documentation through a collaborative process, with appropriate support in terms of best-practice content. Your organization’s workplace harassment and discrimination policy can find a new home within the Code. Decide what happens when someone violates the Code of Conduct to give the document teeth.

4. Communicate and embed the Code

Create a plan to implement the Code through a combination of change management techniques, as well as training programs, governance and process changes. New employees shouldn’t simply be told where to find the Code of Conduct. They should read and understand it on their first day on the job. As such, the Code can provide meaningful ongoing guidelines against which employee conduct can be evaluated.

5. Define a process to ensure continued relevance

Lay out a governance approach to review the Code of Conduct on a regular basis to ensure that it is being enforced and that its elements remain relevant; the process should include mechanisms to revise the content as required. Stakeholders should be made aware that this step will be part of an ongoing process, ensuring them that their participation won’t result in a Code of Conduct carved in stone forever.

How can the organization help its members to make the most of a Code of Conduct?

Even though a Code of Conduct should be straightforward and easy to understand, additional training can help members of the organization to engage in ethical decision-making that reflects the spirit of the Code.

The quiz below is part of a training exercise designed to help members of an organization develop the tools and the confidence to make ethical decisions.

ETHICS QUIZ: Ask yourself these questions when faced with a decision.

  • Is it legal?
  • Is it in line with our organization’s values and ethical principles?
  • Would it be acceptable for everyone to act that way?
  • Would trust toward you, your team or the organization be maintained if your decision was known or made public?
  • Is this decision the best you can do?
  • Is this a case where you can make a certain decision but doing so would cause harm?
  • Do you have enough information to make a decision or do you need to ensure you have all the facts, and are you taking into account any applicable cultural issues?

Would these questions be easy or difficult for members of your organization to answer? Are these questions consistent with the guidance found in your Code of Conduct? Would your existing Code of Conduct help answer them?

Ongoing exercises such as these can provide a good litmus test for the effectiveness of your organization’s Code of Conduct – and help ensure that it remains a relevant, meaningful and living document that can guide your organization and its members for years to come.

To learn more about how to craft an effective Code of Conduct, or to get third party assistance ensuring yours meets the highest standards, contact Mary Larson at [email protected] or 514.228.7905


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