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Everything You Need to Write a Stellar Employee Codes of Conduct

By February 15, 2019 June 16th, 2020

Employee codes of conduct

Companies use employee codes of conduct to help workers understand how to uphold company values in everything they do.

Employee codes of conduct, usually documents with many text-heavy pages, go further than mission and value statements, handbooks, and charters. Codes of conduct don’t leave the day-to-day specifics of a company’s mission up for interpretation; they give employees a manual for practicing mission-driven behavior.

Exhibit A:

  • Mission statement: We make the world better by innovating waste management solutions.
  • Code of conduct: We expect employees to make the world better by, at least while on our campus, maintaining compliance with our waste disposal guidelines.

employee codes of conduct have legal implications

Codes of conduct also save the day in times of legal or ethical uncertainty. For example, if an employee is convicted of ethical misconduct, the company may enjoy a reduced sentence by having codes of conduct in place. (Yes, one bad egg can implicate the entire company!) Our justice system evaluates the “presence of an effective compliance and ethics program” when determining a company’s level of responsibility for one employee’s misconduct. A company might leverage well-documented codes of conduct to earn mitigated culpability.

A note if you work with senior financial officers: The Sarbanes-Oxley Act or Corporate Responsibility Act of 2002 (Sec. 406) mandates a “code of ethics for senior financial officers.” So in that case, establishing employee codes of conduct and ethics is not just a good idea; it’s a requirement.

The bottom line? A code of conduct is an easy-to-reference backbone of company culture and policies. Even if codes gather dust for years, they make all the difference when a “situation” springs up unexpectedly.

Here’s everything you need to know to develop or refresh employee codes of conduct for your company.

Employee Codes of Conduct Essentials

Prescriptive, not restrictive, language

If the language of your codes of conduct defines only what employees cannot do, then employees might feel stifled, restricted, and maybe even a little irritated. (Most people don’t love being told what they can’t do.) That’s why codes of conduct should state rules in positive language whenever possible. See the subtle differences between the two examples below:

  • Restrictive: Employees must never arrive to work more than 45 minutes past their scheduled clock-in time.
  • Prescriptive: We expect employees to be prompt and provide reasonable notice of delays.

Tip: As you write your codes of conduct, be sure to include examples to make the concepts easy to understand. We’ll explain how in some of the examples below.

General codes of conduct

In this section, list commendable behaviors that apply to all people and processes in the company. Many companies base these codes on their core company values. (Some even have values already written in the form of a code.)

employee codes of conduct promote good behavior

Some companies make their codes and ethics easy to understand by assigning principles one key term that describes the behavior. For example, the International Federation of Accountants created five fundamental principles of ethics: integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality, and professional behavior. The federation clarifies each principle with prescriptive language; for example, “objectivity” is followed by “A professional accountant should not allow bias, conflict of interest or undue influence of others.”


A codes of conduct document makes the perfect platform for outlining key policies and procedures. (In a way, policies and procedures are also simply codes of conduct.) For example, Workable recommends including guidelines related to respect in the workplace (also known as anti-harassment policies), treatment of property, attendance, appearance, and dress codes.

Process-specific codes of conduct

Ethical and conduct-related issues can come up in a variety of workplace processes. Adding plenty of context and examples will make your codes of conduct easy to understand and uphold.

To cover as many topics as possible…

  • Make a list of your regularly occurring company processes. If you bill clients on any kind of system, this task should be relatively easy. Otherwise, simply make a list of all company processes, including things like billing, client relations, procurement, and accounting.
  • For each process, include one simple code of conduct. Example: Employees at all levels will treat clients with respect and professionalism.
  • For each process, include at least one example of commendable conduct. Example: Sarah sent a client a handwritten thank-you note for a lovely working lunch.
  • For each process, include at least one example of poor conduct. Example: Jeanine texted a client after work hours to ask an unimportant question.

Universally unacceptable behaviors

Common categories for this section include:

Illegal Acts

Although it may seem like common sense, you may want to add a blanket statement announcing that all illegal behaviors, both civil and criminal, are unacceptable.

Unethical Acts

To clarify what an unethical act looks like, many companies juxtapose two different scenarios: one that demonstrates admirable ethics and another that demonstrates questionable ethics.

employee codes of conduct drive ethics

For example, for an ethical principle of “fairness,” you might cite the following behaviors:

  • Admirable fairness: A hiring manager knows an applicant well and believes she would be perfect for an open position. The hiring manager chooses to thoroughly interview all internal applicants regardless of her relationship to the ideal candidate.
  • Questionable fairness: A hiring manager chooses to save some time and avoid the interview process for an open position; she already knows the absolutely perfect applicant.

Tip: Focus some unacceptable behaviors on potential risks for your specific company.

Deloitte Corporate Governance Services recommends companies cover their particular areas of risk. The firm cites the following example in their helpful guidelines: “For example, a manufacturing company would place greater emphasis on environmental responsibilities than a professional services firm.”

Guidelines for reporting

Project Include recommends specifying how employees can report any code-of-conduct breaches they witness. Additionally, the company recommends adding some detail to quell the employees’ fears about the idea of reporting a colleague.

Reporting conduct breaches might scare some employees

Be sure to specify if the reporting process is anonymous, and outline precisely what will happen after submitting the report. (Will the employee have to come in for a meeting? Will the employee be informed when someone has apprehended the person reported?)  

An anti retaliation disclaimer

Paired with the guidelines for reporting codes of conduct breaches, an anti retaliation disclaimer lets employees know that the company will not penalize them for reporting a code of conduct breach, even if said breach implicates the reporting employee’s boss or another top official.

For example, here’s the language tech giant Google uses in their publicly available code of conduct:

“Google prohibits retaliation against any worker here at Google who reports or participates in an investigation of a possible violation of our Code, policies, or the law. If you believe you are being retaliated against, please contact Ethics & Compliance.”

Enforcement policies

Make the nuts and bolts of enforcement clear—even if you’re choosing not to enforce any of the policies.

Your goal in this section is to:

Make sure employees know how you plan to measure their compliance with general codes of conduct, or in other words, gauge how an employee measures up to overall values.

In this section, specify

    • If employees will be held accountable for memorizing all the codes of conduct
    • If any aspect of performance evaluation will include an employee’s adherence to codes

Make sure employees know the consequences of breaching codes of conduct.

In this section, specify:

  • Which (if any/breaches) qualify as fireable offenses
  • The less severe punishments (probation, community service, etc.) for other breaches

Contact information

Make sure employees know who to contact if they have questions about the codes of conduct.

Employee Codes of Conduct Templates

Employee codes of conduct templates

Choose your template and fill in the fields (with help from all the information above) to get started on your own codes of conduct.

Template 1

Company Name:

Date created or updated:


How the codes of conduct contribute to the mission:

General codes of conduct:


Zero-tolerance behaviors:

Process-specific codes of conduct:

Enforcement details

Template 2

Company Name:

Date created or updated:

Company ethics:

Zero-tolerance behaviors:

Enforcement details:

Template 3

Company Name:

Date created or updated:


General codes of conduct:

Enforcement details:

Template 4

Company Name:

Date created or updated:


Process-specific codes of conduct:


Enforcement details:

Employee Codes of Conduct Checklist

Employee codes of conduct checklist

Ready to distribute the codes of conduct document you created? Run your draft through this checklist first!

Does your codes of conduct document include…

  • An accurate date?
  • Name and information for the contact person for conduct questions?
  • Headings and bullets that make the document easy to read?
  • A balance of restrictive and prescriptive information?
  • A list of codes?
  • Real-world examples that clarify the codes?

Now there’s one last important question: Does your conduct document make sense?

You first instinct might be to say, “Yes; of course it does!”

But you should really consider this question, especially when evaluating something as crucial to your organization as your codes of conduct. That’s why we recommend giving your document a little test before you put it out into the world.

  • Ask a few of your trusted co-workers to read through the codes.
  • Sit down with each reader in turn. Ask each person to describe what each of the codes means. Do this even if you’ve included an illustrative example for any of the codes; you may have included examples that others don’t find easy to understand.
  • Talk with each person until you both agree that you’ve clearly outlined everything.

How do you feel about codes of conduct? We’d love to hear any of your thoughts and questions!

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