Skip to content

How to craft and commit to a code of ethics


When you find a wallet in the breakroom, do you make an effort to return it? If you’re at home and notice that a co-worker made an inflammatory statement on social media, do you take action? If your supervisor is accepting gifts from clients or competitors, is it your place to say something?

These are ethical questions; how you behave should be outlined in your code of ethics. If you want to cultivate an ethical workforce, you must take deliberate and methodical steps to do so. Just hoping you hired good people who will do “the right thing” is an engraved invitation for “the wrong thing” to rear its head and potentially injure your department or your company.

Before you review what role ethics plays in your company’s culture, here’s a pop quiz (You’re on the honor system, so answer quickly and without Internet searches or opening your company handbook):

  • Does your company have a code of ethics?
  • How many of these ethical standards can you name right now?
  • When is the first time you saw the code of ethics?
  • When is the last time?
  • Have you or someone you know ever brought up an ethical concern through the chain of command?

There is no passing or failing grade for this quiz. The point is to see if your employer is communicating the code of ethics consistently enough that you know the standards expected of all employees and, more importantly, that there is a company-wide trust that the code of ethics is applied consistently to the entire workforce.

Crafting the code of ethics

If your company does not have a code of ethics, you should make it a priority to correct this immediately. If you do and you’re looking to refresh or update your code, this section also applies to you.

It’s essential to write a code of ethics that you and your employees can live by. Why? Because when the going gets tough and employees and leaders are faced with challenges – whether it be with a client or a coworker – they will need something stable to lean on. A code of ethics provides that stability so you can trust your employees will make the right decisions in difficult situations.

Writing a code of ethics requires a committee representing a broad cross-section of your workforce. Long-time veterans and first-year employees should be part of the conversation, as should administrative assistants, top-line management, front-line employees and their supervisors. If your company has 10 departments, be certain at least one person from each department has a seat at the table and an opportunity to contribute.

When it comes to actually writing the code, what you leave out is as important as what you leave in. The code of ethics must be concise, direct and leave no room for confusion. The longer it is, the less likely each employee is to read it, but don’t let that dissuade your team from being thorough on the essential focus points. Make the language malleable enough to encompass technological advances and new forms of communication that will be developed in the future.

Enforcing consequences

Once you have written a code of ethics, you need to complete the other half of the equation: creating a trustworthy system to report possible lapses and enforce consequences.

Employees must be confident they can report lapses without fear of reprisal. Offering the option to remain anonymous might be helpful. Employees alleged to have violated the code should be treated with respect and given a fair opportunity to defend themselves and present an argument explaining their actions.

An effective policy concerning potential ethical violations should:

  • Identify key points of contact. Appoint an ethics committee or team to receive and review alleged ethical lapses. Be sure to include directions in your handbook for how employees can contact this team.
  • Outline the steps your employees should take prior to filing an ethical conduct concern as far as what they’ve observed first-hand, what they’ve heard from others and when they first became aware of a potential problem.
  • Explain, step by step, how complaints are investigated and resolved. Also explain how the committee will deal with conflicts of interest in case a member of the committee is named or involved in an ethical allegation.
  • Inform employees of the possible consequences if the committee does reach a conclusion that an ethical lapse occurred.
  • Involve HR in carefully documenting all reported violations of the code of ethics. Even if the committee does not conclude a violation took place, these reports may prove valuable in the future.

Be forewarned: If you are not prepared to treat all ethical lapses consistently, you defeat the purpose of writing a code of ethics in the first place.

If your employees see a double standard, even a perceived double standard, in how people are treated when violating the code of ethics, they will likely lose faith in management. The esteem with which employees hold the code of ethics will plummet. To be successful, those making the judgments should operate as transparently as possible while preserving the anonymity of those involved until a final decision is reached. 

You should make that decision – and the process employed to reach it – open to questions and criticism. Trust is the bedrock of all relationships; without it, your code of ethics will struggle to gain traction as a set of ideas worthy of respect.

Communicating your code of ethics

Communication of the code itself is just as important as communicating to your employees how and why the code will be enforced. Before an employee’s first day on the job, they should be aware of the code of ethics. When interviewing job applicants, use your organization’s ethical standards to ensure they are a proper fit.

The code of ethics should be prominently mentioned and reinforced in:

  • Job descriptions
  • The interview process
  • Onboarding
  • The company handbook
  • Internal communications vehicles
  • Large meetings and other official staff gatherings
  • Regularly scheduled employee reviews

There are two ways to communicate your code of ethics: in word and deed. The above pertains to the verbal communications, but you must also walk the walk. For example, if your code of ethics applies to minor infractions such as an explicitly inappropriate exchange on a personal Facebook page, you and others in charge of enforcement must be prepared to enforce these standards consistently.

If you ignore or dismiss an infraction as a “one-time thing,” your employees will take notice and you may lose their confidence that the code of ethics is anything more than corporate blather.

In the example of a poor choice of words on social media, react proportionally with an official verbal or written reprimand. It may seem strict, but it reinforces that employees need to take this seriously. Word will get around and strengthen the overall commitment to ethics.

Ethics begins at the top

Everyone in your organization, from a first-day intern to the CEO, is bound by your code of ethics. You should have a document on file confirming every employee has received, read and commits to abiding by the same set of ethical standards.

In fact, the more responsibility and authority you have, the more important it is that you behave ethically. It not only models proper behavior for those who report to you, it can also yield long-term cultural and financial benefits for your organization.

Good managers with high ethical standards don’t just materialize out of thin air; they are cultivated over a long period of time. Today’s new employees who demonstrate a serious commitment to your code of ethics should be commended and rewarded. They will be your next crop of outstanding managers who set the precedent of high ethical expectations for future generations.

Your managers must do more, however, than ensure they conduct themselves in accordance with your code of ethics. They must also take seriously any ethical issues brought to their attention.

If one of your direct reports expresses concern about someone’s potential unethical behavior, people will take notice of how you respond. If you do nothing or are slow to react, you’re not only failing those two employees, you’re also failing everyone who might be aware of your inaction. Address any allegations in a timely and appropriate manner and communicate the reasons for your actions. Otherwise, the next ethical lapse might go unreported.

How ethics directly shapes your future

Consider the vital issue of employee safety: Nothing is more important than safety, which is why you spend significant time and resources to inform your employees what is expected of them. Why? Because the health of your co-workers is at stake, and you must – not should, must – do anything you can to prevent injuries or, worst of all, an irreversible tragedy.

You probably tell employees, “Even if you have a concern about safety that turns out to be unfounded, it’s more important that you bring it up and be wrong than to remain quiet and live with the possible consequences.”

You should take the same approach with your code of ethics, because the health of your culture, your organization and your bottom line are at stake.

Tell your employees, “Even if you think someone has violated the code of ethics and you turn out to be wrong, you did the right thing by speaking up. We recognize it took courage for you to speak up. There are no consequences to you being wrong, and if you’d been right and said nothing, the organization could have been harmed.”

A company without dedication to an official code of ethics is a breeding ground for a toxic corporate culture, which can lead to a dissatisfied workforce, frequent turnover and, eventually, poor customer service. All of these can point toward a company with a dismal future.

Instead, point your organization in a positive direction where you adopt a high ethical standard that applies to everyone and offers implicit encouragement that you can be proud of the company you are working for.

How to write a code of ethics is just one of many important steps to building a sound HR strategy and a healthier, more productive work culture. If you’d like more information on how to establish HR infrastructure that positively impacts your employees and your business, download our complimentary e-book: How to create a more strategic HR department.