Codes of conduct: making things clear is better than ‘keeping it real’

The Cotton On Group’s code of conduct reflects a misunderstanding of what they should be used for. Flickr/Alpha, CC BY

To work for retailer Cotton On, employees must “keep it real” and “be fun”, with the potential for disciplinary action if they don’t adhere to these policies.

At first glance, this might seem one of those management curiosities that pops up from time to time as a way of management trying to drive a certain type of organisational culture. However, this is the second code of conduct I have seen recently where the focus is on trying to individualise behaviour within the code of conduct. If this is a growing trend, then it is of concern.

While the sentiment of “keeping it real and fun” may have been added with good intentions, introducing such vague and subjective criteria into a policy statement that is there to provide clear and objective statements of standards can cause more harm than good.

I suspect that, as with the other policies I have seen, that these policies are increasingly being developed by people with little understanding of the role of codes of conduct and the knowledge to develop them appropriately.

So what is a code of conduct?

In its simplest form, codes of conduct are policies that stipulate acceptable standards of behaviour by employees at work and when representing their organisation. It can also relate to a set of professional standards or practices.

The code of conduct provides rules and boundaries that all employees are bound by (including management) and that employers can refer to for appropriate or accepted ethical, professional or disciplinary behaviours.

Following a story in Fairfax Media about its code of conduct, Cotton On Group issued a statement claiming it to be “inaccurate and a misrepresentation of our culture, values and employment practices”, going on to say: “To clarify, our values and the referenced Code of Conduct are not conditions of employment, as was clearly expressed to the journalist.” There still appears to me to be a confusion on what a code of conduct is.

Good versus bad

The most recent high-profile enactment of a code of conduct was the termination of the BBC presenter Jeremy Clarkson for verbal and physical abuse of a colleague. While this was just the last in a series of indiscretions by the presenter, there are certain actions within a code of conduct that can guide an employer in making a decision.

In this particular case, and despite the overt pressure of a public petition with more than one million signatures, Clarkson was sacked because he had clearly breached the code of conduct.

A well-structured and thought-through code of conduct can provide a fair, consistent and valuable signal to all in the organisation (employers and employees) of the core values of an organisation, particularly when it comes to what have often been described as these “moments of truth”, such as Clarkson’s situation.

It is clear therefore that a code of conduct needs to be ethical and underpinned by integrity. While these are basically subjective, it does provide guidelines on how to act in the workplace. In such a context you would not expect such policies to breach employment law.

I am aware of another code of conduct for an independent school which asks staff to act professionally, respectfully and with integrity at all time. However, the code also states that staff should never make a negative comment about any aspect of the school.

So, if an issue or concern is raised by a parent that may reflect badly on the school, do staff at this school act professionally, respectfully and with integrity and attempt to resolve an issue which may then reflect negatively on their employer - or refuse to engage with it for fear of being disciplined? Staff are rightly confused with a contradictory policy that could see someone at risk of being sacked for breaching one part of the code while upholding the other.

Guidelines

So what guidelines can we suggest for those looking to develop a set of quality codes of conduct? Firstly, involve all stakeholders, especially employees, in the process.

Secondly, identify areas that need codes of conduct - for example discipline, attendance or dress standards. Thirdly, communicate a draft to the organisation for comment and fourthly, review regularly. Finally, let a human resources expert and employment lawyer sign off on it.