HR Acuity: Does Your Employee Code of Conduct Need a Refresh?

By HR Acuity, on July 29, 2022

It’s important for employees within any organization or in any industry to understand what their rights are, what they should and should not do in certain situations. An employee code of conduct is therefore a useful document for keeping track of pertinent information for each individual staff member to know, not only for their protection but to protect your organization from any legal issues.

What is an Employee Code of Conduct?

Often referred to more casually as an employee handbook, the employee code of conduct, by definition, is a written, formal document that outlines how employees within an organization are expected to behave. Its purpose is to establish how the values of a company dictate these behavioral expectations.  

An employee code of conduct is important because it establishes what business conduct is acceptable and what behavior isn't tolerated. It helps to create a culture where employees know what they can do and what they cannot do in their workplace setting. While it can be created by a third-party, such as an industry association, most internal employee codes of conduct are developed by the human resources department of an organization with the guidance of the employer and other management.  

When an employee is in violation of a standard or rule set out in an organization’s code of conduct, this misconduct can become a serious issue that needs to be dealt with swiftly and effectively. Misconduct can be a violation of company policies or not, or can be considered ethical misconduct or not. 

Code of conduct or code of ethics?

Often, many individuals can become confused about how an employee's code of conduct differs from a code of ethics. They are not the same. A code of ethics is a set of standards and principles that guide the decisions and actions of an individual or company. The code of conduct defines what behaviors are acceptable for employees to engage in, whereas the code of ethics defines what behaviors are morally right. It’s important to understand that misconduct is not always unethical. While theft or fraud would be considered unethical, there are instances where an employee’s act of misconduct could be considered an ethical decision even though it was in defiance of their employer’s code of conduct, such as refusing to work due to discrimination as per Dreamwork Animation’s policies.  

Human resources is a crucial part of any organization, in part because HR helps define the parameters of performance to ensure employee safety, productivity and engagement. The HR department is also responsible for handling employee code of conduct violations. This includes sexual harassment, discrimination and other illegal activities.

Best Practices of an Employee Code of Conduct

The written rules set out in a code of conduct are designed to help ensure that the workplace is safe, fair and respectful. A code of conduct can be used to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace but also to protect employees from unfair treatment by supervisors, co-workers or even customers. The code of conduct sets the standards for how people should behave in the workplace. All employees should know what these standards are before they start working for a company so they know how to act at work and what their rights and responsibilities are as an employee. 

Board policy will often be where procedures for handling the employee code of conduct can and should be found, however, for many organizations this role is left up to human resources or employee relations professionals. Luckily, there are multiple best practices that have been proven effective for developing a great code of conduct while motivating employees to follow these rules. 

Hand with marker writing Golden Rules

Understand your company 

Having a successful employee code of conduct that your employees can easily understand and navigate means it must be in alliance with your company’s mission, values, goals and more. If your employees can relate to and support the code of conduct because they already support the mission of your company and it’s much easier for them to understand why they’re following these rules.  

Keep it concise  

The employee code of conduct should be clear, concise and specific so that everyone in the company knows what is expected of him or her. Using too much jargon can do more harm than good because it not only could become confusing to employees but using too many words also opens up the opportunity for loopholes or technicalities to be found. In the instance of misconduct, this could lead to undesired outcomes. 

Communicate clearly

Your code of conduct also needs to be clearly and uniformly communicated so that everyone understands what it means. It’s important to think critically about everything that needs to be included and word it in a way that is comprehensive enough that any question that might arise is already answered. 

Match your company branding

Your employee code of conduct should be aligned with any company branding so that it is recognizable and matches the voice seen across the rest of your organization.  

Keep it up to date

Needs and values change over time which means your code of conduct along with all of your other business processes and procedures need to be continuously updated. It should also be updated when there are new staff members being onboarded into the company. 

How to Develop a Code of Conduct

The employee code of conduct is usually written by the company’s HR department. It is then given to all staff members and supervisors for them to read and acknowledge. Designed to protect the company and its employees from lawsuits, liability, and other legal matters, a code of conduct is usually divided into two parts: 

  1. The first part defines the company’s values and principles. This includes how they want their employees to behave in the workplace. 
  2. The second part defines what action will be taken against those who violate these principles or values. This includes disciplinary action such as dismissal or suspension from work.

Before writing a code of conduct from scratch, keep the following in mind: 

  • Decide who will have input in what the rules and procedures will be. 
  • Look back at ethical issues that have already occurred within your organization and ensure that they are all included. 
  • Outline every rule first, connecting each one to the values of your company. Set a threshold for how each event of misconduct will be dealt with depending on the severity of the event, the factors involved and the number of occurrences.  
  • Come up with a draft that you can take to your Board, stakeholders and other necessary individuals. Once you have their feedback, make the necessary changes accordingly. 
  • Complete the hard draft of your employee code of conduct but remember that it’s never the final copy. You’re always going to be updating your code of conduct as changes occur at your organization - which will likely happen often.  

Your employee code of conduct can be organized in any way that meets the needs of your unique organization as long as they outline your company's complete list of professional standards. Most code of conduct cover many of the same topics and touch points outlined below:

  • Your organization’s values, mission and vision. 
  • A staff directory of who to reach out to in certain situations and their job duties. It can also include references to a government official if the need arises. 
  • An outline of ethical standards, ethical behavior and expected ethical conduct. 
  • A letter about inclusivity and diversity within the workplace. 
  • The dress code depending on different work scenarios. 
  • Illegal activities that are not allowed on company property or even when working remotely, such as drug use. 
  • Working hours, breaks, vacation and paid time off, etc.  
  • Confidentiality expectations and how to protect confidential information. It will likely define what company information is included in public records. 
  • Rules against discrimination, harassment, retaliation and other ethical issues.  
  • How employees are expected to use the internet and inappropriate conduct they are not allowed to partake in on company time and company devices. 
  • Whether or not social media use is permitted during work time. 
  • An outline of the consequences threshold when violations do occur and the procedures for dealing with issues and misconduct.

Refreshing Your Current Employee Handbook

If your organization already has an employee code of conduct, otherwise known as an employee handbook, there’s a good chance that it hasn’t been updated in a while. With technology being a large focal point for many companies, it’s easy to have a virtual version of your employee handbook that you can update and adapt easily without needing to waste resources on reprinting.  Keeping your employee handbook easily accessible within a cloud-based platform will also make it simple for employees to check up on current rules and standards without having to have a physical copy at their fingertips.  

If you’re asking yourself if your employee code of conduct or employee handbook needs a refresh, chances are the answer is “yes.” Don’t worry, you don’t have to go it completely alone - HR Acuity is here to help

Try a free demo of the HR Acuity software to help you manage your employees and resolve issues or misconduct with guided support.  

HR Acuity

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