Guide to writing a code of conduct
A code of conduct sets company norms for behavior. These norms are the foundation for diversity and inclusion. Company leaders across functions should be involved in the process of drafting codes of conduct to think critically about how to build culture on their teams, and how to build bridges with other teams. It also provides an opportunity to bring in different groups’ specific concerns, experiences, interactions, needs, and potential reactions.
Codes of conduct are only effective when they are integrated as part of a broader process that includes training, enforcement, monitoring and evaluation, and ongoing evolution.
The team drafting the code of conduct should believe in D&I. Ideally the team should be diverse and inclusive, and influencers who can build company support for the code of conduct should participate; otherwise, consider bringing in an outsider to facilitate the process and help communicate the results. Resist the temptation to cut and paste from the detailed codes of conduct developed for conferences and events — they are not designed to cover the nuances and complexities of workplace interactions. For inspiration, check out some of the examples we’ve listed from companies across Silicon Valley in the resources below.
The team should carefully consider the scope and enforcement of the code. Does it just apply in the workplace, or also at work-related social functions and events? Who is covered? If a violation occurs, what is the process for filing a complaint? If conflicts of interest arise along the reporting chain, what should an employee do?
Often, codes of conduct are driven by lawyers, which is a mistake. Even with input from a broader multi-disciplinary team, having a lawyer lead the process will likely result in a risk-mitigating, law-oriented focus. What you really want is a collaborative, values-driven approach — one that will inspire working with openness, trust, and collaboration instead of bias, fear, and avoidance.
The code of conduct is not a silver bullet for inclusive workplaces. To be effective, codes should be designed and implemented alongside other supportive components. If such efforts fail, we are concerned that companies will blame and dismiss diversity and inclusion altogether.
What are our recommendations
Make your code of conduct comprehensive and visible
Your code of conduct should open with a clear statement of purpose, based on your company’s mission, values, and business. It should be integrated with other policies, including anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, inclusive benefits, and confidentiality policies, and should be consistent across partnerships with outside organizations, customers, and suppliers.
Codes of conduct should be publicly shared, easily accessible, and highly visible. A code of conduct that is hidden in an obscure corner of a company’s internal website does little good. In fact, low visibility may do harm by communicating that a company does not really value its code of conduct. The document should include concrete examples of behavior and situations in plain language to illustrate otherwise abstract concepts. Detail the range of responses and the way enforcement will happen if the policy is violated.
Craft a statement of values in your code of conduct
A company’s values can be a deciding factor and draw for talented employees seeking a compatible workplace; values are often what people see first when learning about a company’s culture. For existing employees, the company’s values can serve as an abridged code of conduct, and a way to check in on whether their actions or experience are aligned well.
Our guidelines for developing strong value statements are:
Use “people first” language. Support the idea that your employees will be treated humanely and with empathy as valuable members of your working team.
Explicitly state how and when actions that violate the code of conduct will be handled, and who is involved in enforcement.
Avoid using in-house jargon or terminology when possible. This helps ensure that those outside your organization can understand, which is great for recruiting new talent.
Keep values clear, simple, and proactive; cover more complicated issues (like the anti-harassment policy) as standalone statements elsewhere in your code of conduct.
Specify who is covered
You should include a passage describing the diversity you want to see in your company, taking care to recognize groups that tend to be targeted for exclusion. The list should include the classes of individuals legally protected from discrimination (known as protected classes), but it should not be limited to them. In California, for example, state and federal law prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, or medical/genetic condition.
Specify a process for reporting complaints
When developing reporting procedures, approach them not as a company looking to avoid liability, but from the perspective of an employee who has been faced with an incident they need to report. Consider offering more than one option for incident reporting. Without an option that allows for anonymity, should a situation arise where an employee may fear retaliation, an incident may go unreported.
This can lead to multiple incidents going unreported, and ignorance at the management level of a repeat offender or a cultural problem. Offering easy, non-confrontational ways to resolve conflict can enable employees to self-regulate and manage incidents. Bookending this option with resources and a pledge of support from the company helps to defeat the expected tendency to diminish a reporter’s experience. Companies should also make it clear that retaliation — from the company itself or from the subjects of reports — is not acceptable.
Employees should know who to report to and how, and what to do if a conflict of interest interferes with the traditional reporting route. For example, if someone’s manager is dating her harasser, she may not feel safe reporting. A third party ombudsperson can be a powerful tool for creating a safe way to report that is outside the company hierarchy.
Employees should also be given information on what to expect when they report, including different kinds of consequences for different actions, with clear examples. They should be provided with a timeline so they understand how the process will unfold.
When violations do occur, managers must periodically follow up with employees at three months and again at six months to determine if they feel the situation was resolved and to discuss whether the inappropriate behavior has stopped. In addition to making employees feel valued, these follow ups will confirm that the company takes the code of conduct and related policies seriously — and is both comfortable talking about specific problems and willing to work on solutions until the problems are actually solved. It also stresses that the employee’s perception and experiences are important to the process, which the company knows may be ongoing.
Managers need to be provided with training on how to take and process reports, with guidance on a schedule for investigating and resolving them. As you develop a policy on how to handle complaints, think about your approach to conflict resolution.
Cover what happens outside the workplace
Some interactions do not arise to the level of overt exclusion or harassment, but still communicate bias, perpetuate stereotypes, or emphasize differences. This makes them just as problematic, because they create awkwardness, make one employee feel uncomfortable at work, and may cause friction in relationships. Your code of conduct should address this issue by extending offsite as well as on.
Exclusion and harassment can occur within the context of work-related social functions, such as conferences, happy hours, holiday parties, and industry events. Networking and outside team-building are often important for career advancement. Problem behavior can have a chilling effect on opportunities for underrepresented groups, who may be reluctant to participate in off-premises events, thereby losing out on valuable connections.
Develop a clear policy for offsite events with considerations like:
Location: Is the venue inclusive, or known for refusing service or being disrespectful to people, especially from underrepresented communities?
Alcohol: Does the meeting or event include alcohol? Alcohol can encourage inappropriate behaviors. Make non-alcoholic beverages available and consider how to manage (or prevent) people who become clearly intoxicated. Options can include no hard alcohol, two drinks per employee using drink tickets, or an open bar for limited hours. The policy should be clearly communicated and enforced.
Time: Is the meeting or event at a reasonable time for employees who care for children or dependents, and with enough warning for them to arrange alternative care? Consider providing child care and travel assistance in planning.
Food: When providing food, are you keeping in mind religious holidays that would affect your employees’ diet? Do the options consider vegetarians and religious or medical restrictions, and are foods clearly labeled so employees do not have to disclose personal information?
Invitations: Invitations to social outings, official and unofficial, should be shared publicly and easily accessible, such as through a team’s Slack channel and group email. Ad hoc, word of mouth planning may exclude those from underrepresented backgrounds and others who may not have strong personal networks at the company.
Write and communicate a clear anti-harassment policy
An anti-harassment policy is a non-negotiable element of an inclusive company. It ensures that in the event of an incident, employees understand their rights and the processes available for them to seek support.
Anti-harassment policies should explicitly define what is not appropriate, outline the steps for reporting an incident, and explain what to expect after a report has been filed. They should address all forms of unacceptable activity in a single document, rather than having separate policies for different kinds of harassment (racial, gender, sexual, etc.). Singling out specific forms of harassment with their own policies can minimize others and make employees uncertain about which situations count as harassment.
Listing the consequences of certain examples of violations can be a deterrent for employees who may have worked in less inclusive cultures. Examples of specific issues covered by the policy could include:
Trust and confidentiality
Respectful and effective approaches to communication
Preferred working methods
Standards of professionalism
Use of company property
Use of social media
Belittling, or subtle expressions of bias
Verbal, physical, or written abuse or assault
Bullying, intimidation, or victimization
Inappropriate use of company property or assets
Failure to comply with company values
Breaches of other company policies
Workplace decor — visual cues can communicate culture and carry cultural baggage. For example, inappropriate or disproportionately masculine environmental elements can undermine inclusivity messaging and exacerbate feelings of exclusion.
Power dynamics can play an important role in how people interact and build relationships at work, including romantic or sexual ones. A no-dating policy can be ineffective and impractical. A clear policy on how and when it is appropriate to ask coworkers out on dates can be effective and helpful. Some companies, for example, have a “one-shot” policy, under which an employee may ask another employee out once. Under this policy, the employee may not ask again if the answer is no.
Codes of conduct should include a clear policy on relationship disclosure, covering how and when relationships should be reported. One common policy is for the senior party (or both if they are peers) to report the relationship to their manager within 24 hours of the first date. If the parties have a reporting relationship, the company should decide whether to alter the chain of command or take other steps to mitigate it. For example, if an engineer starts dating his team leader, it may be advisable to have him report to a different person. Some companies prohibit direct reporting relationships from becoming romantic or sexual. You should decide where you want your company’s policy to be, and make sure it is clear to your employees.
Monitor, audit, and survey the results of your code of conduct
Organizations should regularly monitor and audit the implementation of their codes of conduct, paying close attention to levels of compliance and effectiveness of enforcement mechanisms. Organizations should share the results of these audits with their employees in ways that respect the privacy of those involved. Companies could report on metrics such as suspected breaches, mechanisms for reporting, whether reports were substantiated, and the company’s response.
The code must also be current, meaning it should be reviewed every six months to determine if updates are required. This may be necessary to reflect changes in the law, regulations, and ethical norms. Audits are not the only source of information about how well a code of conduct is working. Employees should be invited to submit feedback on company surveys, performance reviews, and when they file complaints.
We share these resources as a helpful but not comprehensive reference list and encourage you to continue exploring.
We share these helpful references as starting points and encourage you to continue exploring.
Example codes of conduct:
Example anti-harassment policy:
Example values statement: