Why Do We Need a Code of Conduct?

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I have recently been assisting an NGO with developing Human Resource related policies. It has been a challenging experience and one with which I am sure many small business managers can relate. Limited resources and time pressure has resulted in policies and procedures being developed haphazardly and retroactively.The sudden growth in the organisation has left them unprepared for some of the challenges of working with people. In addition to thorny issues of acceptable dress and sloppy petty cash records, there has been loss and damage to ICT hardware resulting in contraventions of PoPI (Protection of Personal Information Act) as well as raising concerns of ethics.In all the examples, it was apparent that the ‘transgressor’ did not realise that the behaviour in question was unacceptable. A case in point was when a lost piece of equipment was replaced by the employee, because he knew that he was responsible. However, it was replaced by an inferior model, not recorded on the asset register for insurance and it meant that there had been a breach of confidentiality of personal information.

The employee had genuinely tried to fix his mistake but in doing so he had dug an even deeper pit for himself and the NGO.The management team quickly realised that a Code of Conduct would have gone some way to avoiding these painful and embarrassing situations. Just as standards of performance need to be clear, so do standards of ethics and behaviour. While some things seem to be so obvious, such as do not steal, when is a failure to produce a petty cash slip dishonesty and when is it ignorance of accounting good practice? Another example is with regards to service. Staff were genuinely surprised that it sends a very poor message to sit at reception eating in front of customers.When dealing with people, assumptions about unwritten rules are very dangerous. While a Code of Conduct cannot cover all scenarios, it does emphasise what is considered important and therefore helps to set a tone. Behaviour begets behaviour. A Code of Conduct can be seen as a ‘behavioural constitution’, against which we can test standards and policies.

A Code that is visible and referred to regularly not only encourages ethical and professional behaviour but it helps to guide decision making, even when no-one is looking.It is important that the Code is directly informed by the core values of the business. Values are quite simply what we believe in. It is how we do things. If you have not been through a value-setting session with your staff, now would be a good time to do so! It can be a powerful team building experience because people are directly involved in selecting key values and defining them so that they make sense. Everyone knows that the customer is king, but very few know how that looks, sounds or feels.Integrity is a common contender for a Values Statement but what does this actually mean? Integrity can be defined as ‘doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.’ However, what does that actually look like in terms of behaviour?

Brainstorming answers to these three questions helps to be specific about what your organisation means by integrity, or any other value:Integrity means that we need to continue doing……….? (e.g. keeping our promises)Integrity means we need to start doing……………? (e.g. admitting to mistakes)Integrity means that we need to stop doing…………..? (e.g. lying, even white lies)Once you have a Values Statement in place, the Code of Conduct is simply the next logical step. It is a clear statement of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. When building the Code it is important to consider the broader business and governance environment; the physical environment and social or environmental responsibility, as well as people issues.

By using ‘we’ language, management send an important message to staff, suppliers and customers that everyone is expected to adhere to the Code. This automatically imposes an obligation on people to speak up when a breach takes place and it means that management have to lead from the front.Key take out: A Code of Conduct helps to keep us honest. It provides guidance for ethical and professional decision making and removes doubt as to what is acceptable vs unacceptable behaviour.

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