When an employee starts a new job, the company’s employee handbook is one of the first documents he receives. Similarly, students often receive a copy of their school's code of conduct. A code of conduct is an important organizational asset that outlines how members are expected to behave when actively engaged with the organization as well as on their own time.

A code of conduct and a code of ethics aren't the same thing, though the two documents can reference each other and be used to support each other. A code of ethics is a document that states the principles the company and its employees are expected to follow. A code of conduct spells out how employees are to follow the code of ethics and clearly states which actions are acceptable and encouraged and which are unacceptable.

Why Write a Code of Conduct?

By writing a code of conduct, a company explains its culture. It answers many of the questions employees have about working with the employer and eliminates “gray area” challenges managers might face.

A code of conduct clearly spells out exactly what kind of behavior is expected from an organization’s members. An employer’s code of conduct for employees might state the avenue through which they're to file complaints about issues in the workplace; how they are to report metrics like profit, consumer engagement and company losses; how employees are to conduct themselves toward consumers as well as among their colleagues and the actions for which they can expect to face disciplinary measures. These disciplinary measures should be included in the code of conduct.

Types of Code of Conduct

In many cases, an organization creates multiple codes of conduct. This is because the organization needs different things from the different groups it serves and is served by. A school, for example, might have a code of conduct for students as well as a code of conduct for faculty and staff.

A code of conduct for students might address:

  • Plagiarism.
  • Reporting misconduct.
  • Dress code.
  • Absence policy.
  • Proper technology usage.

Whereas a code of conduct for teachers would instead address:

  • The avenue through which to contact students’ parents.
  • Recording and submitting students’ grades.
  • Dress code.
  • Leave policy.

Developing a Code of Conduct

Companies can find examples of code of conduct rules by looking at other companies’ codes of conduct. Some choose to draw inspiration from other companies in their industry to ensure that they cover all industry-specific concerns like certain legal or ethical standards that companies in other industries don't have to follow. One example of this is a medical practice including HIPAA privacy rules in its code of conduct. In a similar vein, many companies look at other local businesses' codes of conduct to ensure that they don't miss any city- or state-specific employer requirements like anti-discrimination policies for certain protected classes.

Many companies also look at big, well-known brands’ codes of conduct, particularly brands widely known for having employee-friendly workplace cultures, to find effective examples of code of conduct requirements. The Google code of conduct is available online for anybody to read and draw inspiration from, as are Coca-Cola’s and IKEA’s code of conduct for their suppliers.

An easy way to find examples of code of conduct guidelines is to google “code of conduct.” A well-developed code of conduct clearly states what's expected of the group it is written for and provides a sufficient amount of supporting material to ensure that the reader understands each part of the code. This supporting material can include:

  • Diagrams illustrating specific scenarios.
  • Infographics that demonstrate the cause-and-effect outcomes of following (or not following) the code of conduct.
  • Real-life anecdotes that invoke the code of conduct.
  • Hypothetical situations where various points in the code of conduct come into play.

Principles for a Code of Conduct

An effective code of conduct is one that's fair, transparent and clearly spells out expectations for all members of an organization, not just employees. When writing a code of conduct, a business owner or human resources director should focus on the following principles:

  • Fairness.
  • Accountability.
  • Clarity.
  • Ethical practices.
  • Respect for people.
  • Legal requirements, such as labor laws, antitrust laws, reporting requirements and environmental regulations.
  • Safety.
  • Integrity.

A well-developed code of conduct protects employees as well as the employer. Clear information about the disciplinary measures in use for specific employee actions can help the company avoid a retaliation complaint, while clear information about the company’s ethical practices can help an employee determine whether he has actual grounds to make a whistleblower complaint.

What to Include in a Code of Conduct

What needs to be in a code of conduct depends on the type of organization it's written for. A nonprofit organization needs a different code of conduct from a business, and a public school needs a different code of conduct from a private fraternal organization.

Although there are overlaps between the different types of codes of conduct, each type of organization has type-specific needs that should be considered when developing a code of conduct for individual groups within it. For example, a school’s code of conduct needs to be developed around creating an atmosphere that's conducive to learning and fostering student success, while a nonprofit organization’s code of conduct would instead focus on promoting the cause the organization supports.

An employer’s code of conduct may include:

  • Employee leave policy.
  • The company’s operating hours.
  • If employees are expected to be reachable after hours.
  • The company’s definitions of conflicts of interest and how to handle them.
  • Employees’ probationary period.
  • Legal reporting requirements, such as those imposed by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.
  • Proper email, internet and other technology usages.
  • The company’s community involvement.
  • Business operational procedures.
  • Gift and entertainment policies.
  • How employees are to use their expense accounts.
  • Meal and rest break policies.
  • Behavioral standards.
  • Violations of the company’s behavioral standards and the consequences.
  • How to report issues like safety violations and sexual harassment.
  • The company’s values.
  • Compliance resources.

When developing a code of conduct, it can be helpful for a business owner or Human Resources department to look at the company’s code of ethics template document. Although a code of conduct is much more granular and actionable than a code of ethics, using the code of ethics template document can put the reader into a behavior-focused mindset. She can also use the ethical standards she reads as a guide for the code of conduct and rely on the code of ethics template document to create a well-organized, visually appealing code of conduct that communicates its points clearly while complementing the rest of the employee handbook.

Examples of Code of Conduct Styles

Some organizations create simple codes of conduct and organize them as numbered or bulleted lists. Others get more creative and create acronyms or organize key points in a question-and-answer format. Some, like the Google code of conduct, use very conversational language that aims to read like a chat between the employee and human resources, while others take a more formal tone.

An effective code of conduct is one that leaves no room for confusion. A clear, somewhat uninteresting code of conduct is a far better choice than a creative yet confusing one. Although a company can work its branding into its code of conduct, the code of conduct’s author should always remember that clarity is her top priority because when a code of conduct is unclear, misunderstandings can easily lead to employee mistakes.