8 elements of an effective code of conduct

Over the last 20 years, codes of conduct have undergone an evolution—most significantly from a set of rules (what you can and cannot do) to a set of values-based principles (what we should and should not do). Gone are the days of writing codes of conduct with pages of unreadable text, legalistic language, and corporate jargon. These have been replaced with codes of conduct that are visually engaging, readable, and useful to employees as guides to help them make ethical decisions and do the right thing. Our latest white paper, Creating a code of conduct that inspires, explores how organizations can reimagine what an effective, values-driven code of conduct looks like—on paper and in real life. 

If you’re wondering whether it might be time to update, refresh, or completely overhaul your organization’s code of conduct, you might want to keep in mind eight key elements that ensure your code is effective and engaging. 

Code of conduct element 1: Set the tone from the top   

Does your code include a message from your CEO—or another leader—that emphasizes connections between your code, your organization’s shared values, and business performance? It is critical that employees hear directly from leadership about the importance of acting with integrity in their daily work. The leadership message should be concise, inspiring, and written in the leader’s authentic voice. Don’t forget to enhance the connection with employees by using an appealing photo and, even better, a link to a video message.  

Code of conduct element 2: Highlight company values and mission early and often 

Your organization’s purpose (mission) is its reason for existing. It’s why people get out of bed and come to work every day. Your values are the key principles that guide everyone in how they carry out the mission. It’s important that your code of conduct clearly list and explain these elements upfront. Your code should take those values one step down to the behavioral level, so everyone reading can see how they can live out those values in their daily work. Rather than solely listing the purpose and values at the beginning of the code, weave them throughout the code and into the fabric of the behavioral guidance it offers employees.  

Code of conduct element 3: State that opportunities and consequences apply to all 

It is surprising how many codes fail to mention that they apply to all employees, officers, and directors.Your employees need to understand that the code applies to everyone—not just them, but leaders and managers at all levels and members of the board of directors as well. This helps promote a greater sense of organizational justice. Although your code should be inspiring and encouraging, it is important to spell out the consequences of non-compliance. Provide just enough detail so it’s clear to everyone what could happen to the company—and to them personally—if they don’t abide by the code.  

Code of conduct element 4: Identify how to seek advice and raise concerns  

Does your code identify resources for seeking guidance and raising concerns, and does it expressly prohibit retaliation? If your code does nothing else, it should provide employees with clear guidance on where and how to raise concerns, report compliance issues, and get help. People need to speak up. But they also need to feel safe doing so. That responsibility falls on your organization, its leaders, and managers at all levels. Your code needs to make it clear that retaliation is itself a violation of the code and will not be tolerated.  

Code of conduct element 5: Address key risk areas and topics relevant to your organization 

While your code can’t cover all risk topics and situations, it needs to address a comprehensive range of ethics and compliance risk topics that apply to most of your employees. The selection of topics should be tied directly to your risk assessment. For each risk topic covered, the code should include the high-level, values-based principles to be followed, along with clear, behavior-based guidance on actions that may or not be taken. Be sure to not only include the “what” and the “how,” but also the “why” for each topic. When you give employees the business rationale for doing the right thing in a particular area, they will be more likely to pay attention. Behaving according to ethical values and principles makes people better employees, helps teams function more effectively, and leads to positive, long-term results for your organization. 

Code of conduct element 6: Reinforce knowledge through short, accessible outlets 

Reinforcing information throughout your code will help your employees better understand the expected principles and standards of behavior. Using real-life scenarios will make the code more relatable by showing examples of what could happen and how to handle the situation properly. It is also important to provide live links to related policies, training, and other resources available to provide additional, more detailed guidance. Another effective strategy is to embedding videos of leaders and colleagues talking about the importance of ethics and compliance. Including video vignettes explaining a particular topic or playing out a specific scenario will go a long way towards bringing your code to life.   

Code of conduct element 7: Make it easy to use  

For most organizations, employees only read the code when they are periodically asked to acknowledge that they have read, understand, and will abide by the code of conduct. We need to change this. Make your code a useful resource for your employees. Get them in the habit of pulling up the code whenever they have a question or concern about an ethics and compliance policy or issue. We do this by organizing the code in a structured, meaningful way. Make the code navigable. Include a simple table of contents from which employees can click and land on the specific topic they are looking for. Once there, they should see the high-level principle, business rationale, behavioral guidance, learning aids, and links to policies and other resources where they can go for help. 

Code of conduct element 8: Make it visually appealing.   

The use of company branding—colors, fonts, logos, and icons—will tell employees that this is their code. Include images that inspire employees and allow them to see themselves, their coworkers, and the positive impact they have on their customers, communities, and the work at large. Use layout, callouts, highlighting, and white space to make the code meaningful, yet easy on the eyes. Finally, make sure the code is written in plain language that everyone can understand. 

The key takeaway 

One of the main points we emphasize in Creating a code of conduct that inspires is that code of conduct should represent your character and culture written down. Everyone who looks at your code should get a clear sense of who you are as an organization: what you believe, what you value, how you behave, and how you go about your business. Your code should inspire principled performance by connecting employees to your organization’s higher purpose; guide employees in how to live out your code values; and enable them to make ethical decisions and do the right thing. You can learn more by downloading a copy of our new white paper.