Do I Need a Code of Conduct?

No, you don’t need one.

But there are good reasons why you would want one.

As I have explained elsewhere, if you employ staff, you are legally obliged to be a good communicator. You must talk to them.

And your work policies, company manuals, and codes of conduct are ways of communicating something to your staff. They give your employees a sense of what you expect.

So what about codes of conduct or “house rules”? What are the specific benefits of those?

THE LEGAL STATUS OF POLICIES

First, a word about the legal status of company policies, of which codes of conduct are an example.

They are binding by reference

Policies and codes of conduct are not necessarily binding on your staff, unless you make them so.

You can do that by including a reference to them in your employment agreements that requires employees to stick to those policies.

Here’s some example wording you could include in your employment agreements to incorporate policies (and codes of conduct) into the agreements with your staff:

The Employee agrees to comply with all of the Employer’s policies and procedures (including any Codes of Conduct), which the Employer may amend from time to time.

They can be changed, after consultation

The good thing about policies, unlike employment agreements, is that they can be changed from time to time without your employees’ prior agreement.

However, a fair and reasonable employer will normally consult with staff first, before making changes to a policy.

Consultation does not require that you agree with your employees. But it does mean that you genuinely take their views into account before you decide what changes you will make.

By the way, it’s no use changing the policy if you don’t make your employees aware of the changes. You must notify them when the policy gets amended. More on that below.

You must keep to them

Policies are binding on you as the employer. In other words, if a policy or code of conduct describes what you will do in a particular case, then you must act accordingly. A fair and reasonable employer will always do what they have told their employees they will do.

That is why it is important to give yourself a healthy degree of discretion in every instance in a policy where you are describing what you, as the employer, will do.

Use phrases like, “The Company may do such and such…” or “If the Employer chooses to do such and such, then…” That way you have room to take a different course if the particular circumstances require.

WHY YOU MIGHT WANT A CODE OF CONDUCT

Codes of conduct are a great way to communicate your expectations of your employees’ behaviour.

They usually set out a list of what sorts of behaviour will not be tolerated in your business. Its about setting the bar for expected behaviour at an appropriate level.

Some standards will be obvious – like not fighting, ignoring your instructions, or harassing other staff. But others may be more specific to your business – such as in a retail business, where you want to be clear about your expectations for handling money.

The benefits? Well, if you haven’t told your staff what you expect of them, how can you complain if they do not measure up?

At the very least, a code of conduct will promote good behaviour amongst your team. And if everyone behaves well, your business will run more smoothly.

Unfortunately, humans are prone to misbehave – some more than others. But if you have been clear about the types of conduct you consider unacceptable in your workplace, it will be easier to discipline those who step out of line.

Legally speaking, you will more likely be regarded as acting fairly and reasonably if you issue a warning or dismiss an employee who contravened your code of conduct. That is because the code of conduct had put them on notice that their bad behaviour would not be tolerated.

BUT NO ONE READS THEM!

It’s all very well to have a code of conduct, but for it to have any benefit at all, it must be read and absorbed by your staff.

Further, it would be unfair to discipline an employee for breaching a code of conduct if you never brought it to their attention.

A good idea would be to include a copy of the code of conduct in your induction pack for new employees, or to append a copy of the code of conduct to every new employment agreement.

Make the code of conduct available on intranet or somewhere obvious, like a notice board.

If you need to update the code of conduct, then issue a fresh copy to every employee – by email or hard copy – drawing their attention to the changes.

For a bolts and braces approach, have your employees sign the amended policy or code and keep it on their personnel file.

Finally, make a point of reviewing it regularly – yearly may be sufficient – with your staff at team meetings. If you neglect your policies, you can bet that your employees have too.

CONCLUSION

As a tool for communicating your expectations, codes of conduct are helpful. They not only mean that you can fairly keep your employees accountable, but also that you have a more harmonious workplace by setting out the minimum standards of behaviour that you expect.

The trick will be to not make it seem like you are battering your staff about the head with a bunch of rules. Perhaps you can make the code part of your work culture and cast it in as positive a light as possible? There’s a challenge for you.

Do you have a code of conduct in place? Have you reviewed it lately? Are employees aware that it exists?