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Why You Need a Code of Conduct and How to Create One

Workplaces comprise diverse groups of people with various motivations, backgrounds, and ethics. Because of this diversity, when such groups are brought together, it can result in ethical, moral, financial, or even legal boundaries being crossed. Sometimes those boundaries are crossed with disastrous results.

Establishing a workplace code of conduct can prevent such digressions by providing a framework of expectations for employees to follow to conduct themselves in various situations. Simply put, a workplace code of conduct is a written document that maps out the company’s ethics, values, rules, and expectations for employees. It should cover a wide range of situations from legal to financial to behavioral that an employee may encounter in the performance of their duties. However, it should not be hundreds of pages or overly complicated. It should cover the topics it needed and nothing more.

To be effective, a code of conduct must consistently apply to everyone in the company, including the CEO’s corner office down to the production floor and everyone in between. From board members, contractors, and suppliers, if anyone is representing or doing business on behalf of your company or wants to do business with your company, they need to follow the code of conduct. Consistency in applying your code of conduct is key to preserving your organization’s reputation. For example, suppose your company’s code of conduct is in place but sources materials from a supplier who exploits child labor. What type of reputation are you building for your business?

There are many positives and minimal downsides to having a code of conduct for your company. It’s an excellent idea for companies that want a demonstrable way to promote an ethical corporate culture, retain employees, prevent any legal issues, and, in some cases, even be listed on various stock exchanges.

A code of conduct also allows those outside the company to have expectations of how the company will treat them. If your company adheres to a code, others can expect that they will be treated ethically.

A code of conduct and a code of ethics are used interchangeably in a lot of cases, as they are very similar. But, there is a subtle difference, a Code of Conduct focuses more on behavior while a Code of Ethics leans more heavily toward moral principles and at the same time incorporating rules of conduct. Etiquette is also sometimes tied up in a code of conduct or ethics as well. But etiquette is mainly a series of rules or conventions on appropriate social behavior.

It’s essential to take the time to seriously consider what to include in your company’s code of conduct and what not to include.

What to include

  • Let’s start with the first thing people will encounter if the code of conduct is produced as a standalone document – rather than being incorporated into an employee handbook, which is an option – the title. Give it a catchy title, something that is easy to read and understand. It shouldn’t be cryptic or too clever. But, on the other hand, it doesn’t have to be dry and staid.

  • Include an introduction from the CEO or another prominent figure from the management team to show that management fully supports the code and expects everyone else to follow suit.

  • Add the company’s mission statement or vision statement if one is available.

  • Specifics. State within the body of the code what exactly is expected from everyone involved.

  • Include definitions of what is acceptable conduct and what isn’t. Let employees know what kinds of consequences they could expect from violating the code of conduct.

  • Give examples of situations that employees may encounter and the expected responses. Provide information on related laws that apply to instances cited in the code.

  • Use descriptive words that make the expected behaviors clear. Using terms like “respectful” or “trust” can be interpreted differently. Make sure to use action words like “truthful” and “kind” so employees know how to enact the code of conduct.

What to exclude

  • Make sure to exclude jargon or legal mumbo jumbo that creates wordy or overly complicated expectations. After all, you are not rewriting the Code of Hammurabi or the 10 Commandments. If it’s readable, it’s more likely to be read, simple enough.

  • Irrelevant information. Similar to the above bullet point, but sometimes people go overboard in belaboring a point. There are times when less is more, and that promotes readability as well.

Identifying areas of risk

When developing a code of conduct, it is good to identify various risks to the company and ways to avoid them. Preventing risks should be included in the code to help mitigate such risks.

  • Some standard methods to identify risks include:

  • Using real or hypothetical case studies

  • Drawing on personal and organizational experience

  • Looking at similar projects and learning from their experience

  • Consulting experts

  • Mind mapping or brainstorming techniques

  • Considering points of failure

  • Extrapolating from past incidents reports or complaints

  • Interviewing and/or surveying stakeholder groups

  • Using systems analysis techniques like flowcharting

  • Operational modeling

  • Formal auditing or inspections

  • Conducting new studies or consulting previous studies

  • Work breakdown structure analysis

You can also use formal analyses such as:

SWOT: Stands for Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats. A good system to create a broad picture of any situation.

PESTLE: Stands for Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, and Environmental. Used to assess the current market conditions and create a strategic plan.

HAZOP: Stands for HAZard and OPerability study. Provides a structure and system to examine a process or operation to identify risks.

FMEA: Stands for Failure Mode and Effects Analysis. A system that analyzes system failures and their effects.

To ensure your risk identification is complete:

  • Information gathering should always be a group activity.

  • Gather hard data whenever possible.

Once you have identified the risks, you can review them to choose how to rank and evaluate them. One common method is a 3 x 3 matrix.

This tool can be customized and expanded to include additional levels of severity and likelihood.

Writing a Code of Conduct

While one person should be designated to write the code, this process must be collaborative and seen as a joint document. The first step is to assemble a team, determine what content to include in the document, and assign various draft areas for members to work on. The team should consist of management and members of company departments such as HR, communications, safety, and so on. If your company has a legal department, you should certainly have one of its members on board to ensure any legal concerns and requirements are covered.

Once some groundwork meetings have been completed, one person will need to compile the relevant material/content create the first draft. After the first draft has been written, members should have time to review and offer recommended changes and discussed by the team to approve changes for the final draft.

As with any project-by-committee, it could morph into an unending project with rounds and rounds of revisions if things are allowed to continue. Having a deadline focuses members on the end goal rather than the process of creation. Otherwise, you can end up with a bloated Frankenstein monster of a document that misses the mark by a mile. Once the document is complete, let the legal department have one final look, not for quality or content, but to ensure the document covers all the required legal basis.

Spreading the word

When a company decides to implement a code of conduct, rolling the document out in a way that sends the right message is key. This means announcing it companywide through a position of power, not just the HR group. The message should also be treated as good news because it is. Make sure to include all the information employees could conceivably need to buy into the project.

Things to consider including:

  • Why your company decided to have one?

  • What your goal is for the code?

  • Who worked on it?

  • When it will come into effect?

  • Who does it apply to?

  • What form it will take (paper document, online PDF, website) and how they can get a copy.

  • Who they should contact with questions about the code.

  • How to suggest any changes.

Make sure that everyone in the company has access to a copy of the code of conduct. It can be a paper copy or an online version, as long as it’s easily accessible.


Once you have a code of conduct in place and available for everyone, it’s pertinent that you require everyone to read it and keep a record that confirms each employee has read and understands the code and will adhere to it.

More importantly, take the time to offer short training sessions for employees to go over the code. Let them know what it’s all about and give plenty of time for any questions. Training should include examples of situations and expected behaviors to help reinforce the message contained within the code.

This is also the time when you will discuss breaches of the code. Give examples of ways the code can be violated (with varying levels of severity) and how these breaches will be dealt with.

Orientation sessions for new employees must incorporate the code of conduct once it is complete.

Managers and supervisors should also be trained on the code of conduct and include aspects of the training that address how they should conduct themselves when ensuring employees adhere to the code. Accompanying the training for the code of conduct with other leadership skills, such as coaching and mentoring, is a great opportunity that can keep your organization operating ethically and retaining employees.

Make Employees Champions of the Code

Employees should know that they are stewards of the code and should champion the behaviors the organization desires. Employees should also feel safe and free to point out violations and have their violations pointed out. Including the employee’s ability to perform under and be a champion of the code of conduct can be part of the performance evaluation process.

It is important to avoid the traps that develop a culture of informants rather than endeavoring to build a workplace that holds itself to a high standard, which benefits everyone. Establishing an environment where employees should appropriately help each other approach situations under the code of conduct guidelines can help create a common language and behavior within a team and open lines of communication beyond technical ability and onto the approach.

If violations are serious, there should be multiple ways to inform the appropriate person (there should be a dedicated person in this role, such as the HR manager) for suspected and severe violations of the code. Make sure these reporting avenues are confidential to encourage employees to come forward.

Punishments for violations of the code should be commensurate with the offense itself, from coaching to possible termination. For example, it would be inappropriate to fire an employee for coming back late from lunch.


The Ten Commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.

  2. You shall not make for yourself a carved image­ – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

  3. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

  5. Honor your father and your mother.

  6. You shall not murder.

  7. You shall not commit adultery.

  8. You shall not steal.

  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

  10. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.

The Bible, Exodus 20:1-17

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Other Samples:

Code of Conduct for Members of the United States Armed Forces:

Principles of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes

Other Online Resources:

There are numerous sites online that offer advice, examples, and templates for developing a workplace code of conduct. Listed below are just a few. Center For Advanced Leadership is not responsible in any way for the content of these links:


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