While recently discussing ways to create a healthy workplace culture, I couldn’t help but notice that the Code of Conduct for an organization was never mentioned. It became clear that a Code of Conduct rarely (if ever) underpinned healthy behavior. It was barely seen as an aspiring document meaning one of the most widely used ‘best practices,’ outlining fundamental values and principles for employee behavior, had become a missed opportunity.
The inception story of the corporate Code of Conduct is varied, but after large U.S. companies in the 90s were toppled by fraud, and most recently, the #MeToo movement put sexual harassment and abuse in the spotlight, these documents were updated and reshared across organizations. Unfortunately, this did not translate into unlocking behaviors that allowed people to succeed together and treat each other with dignity.
So, what can be done to turn this relic of corporate environments into a document employees embrace and a cornerstone of healthy workplaces? Accountability, Transparency, and Accessibility.
Accountability requires individuals and organizations to be held to a standard, and harmful behaviors must be addressed and modified. People act from their own experiences and beliefs without any check to determine how their behavior contributes to the health of the culture. Feedback conversations are not enough if not addressing specific behaviors that need to be changed.
Too often, behaviors are not addressed, and team cultures are, in some cases, toxic. If toxicity is in any part of an organization, harm and trauma follow. No person or organization has the right to inflict harm or create trauma.
We are all responsible for our own actions, but managers and leaders are responsible for tying team values and principles back to company expectations. Managers do not control what people do, but they do control how they respond. If you manage a team, you must be humble and vocal, addressing your own and your teams’ behavior. The healthiest environments welcome empathetic feedback and self-assessment for personal development and growth.
When was the last time you saw a report from your HR compliance team? Generally, almost everything these teams touch is confidential. Still, it could be worth sharing general terms and figures on compliance cases to support greater transparency. Employees could have insight into what these teams are working on and how they are auditing and streamlining their procedures. Even sharing basic information on the number of issues reported and themes could be helpful in understanding if the Code of Conduct and related policies and practices are effective. For example, was there an uptick in Covid-19 based discrimination? What, if anything, was done to address these complaints? This type of information would allow connected teams to address significant issues more openly and before great talent resigns for want of feeling heard and protected.
Some companies are doing great work behind the scenes, and employees are unaware because leaders are afraid of sharing information that will make them vulnerable to employee scrutiny. Anyone concerned most about ‘optics’ may not be thinking deeply enough about creating meaningful transparency that supports trust-building and essential change.
Creating a short and easy-to-read document in the company’s ‘official language’ is only the beginning. A Code of Conduct should not only be in the language of each country an organization operates in; raising the bar would also mean creating documents in the countries where they have customers and providing an audio version in each language.
Employees identified as having a visual disability could have the code of conduct mailed in their braille language of choice. Those with cognitive differences would be given a chance to explain what they need to make the Code of Conduct accessible to them so it can be acted upon. These suggestions are not exhaustive, but if we are going to write documents meant to set the standard of expected behavior, and everyone is responsible for understanding and acting accordingly, organizations must become more advanced in the format and distribution of these documents.
Ultimately, organizations are looking to create a standard of professionalism. Real Professionalism is a skill and a tool that businesses should push to promote efficiency, good work performance, and healthy cultures. By increasing accountability, transparency, and accessibility, the Code of Conduct can be a central tool in driving professional behavior and positively impact how employees relate and perform together.
I had to get out. It was toxic.”
I am too familiar with that sense of urgency to leave a job and a company after workplace trauma. It’s horrible to start a position ready to contribute, only to leave defeated and traumatized sometimes. Once, years ago, a Sr. Director told me that when one of his female peers talked, he wanted to punch her in the face. Yes, it can be bad out there.
Unfortunately, no one I know has been able to say they haven’t had a toxic experience at some point in their career. The idea that experiencing a toxic workplace is inevitable concerns me and even makes me afraid for the future of work.
But what is a toxic workplace?
I like looking up the definition of a term, so here goes: Toxic — very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way. (Oxford)
My definition: The behaviors displayed and words used at work are devaluing, disrespectful, demanding, and harmful to employees’ mental, emotional or physical health.
That is precisely what my peers, friends, family, and myself meant when we labeled our past workplaces this way. The behavior we witnessed or were subject to was harmful.
Statements you may hear at work:
“It’s not safe here.”
“I am afraid to say anything about what they did in the meeting because I know it will only be turned on me, or I won’t be believed.”
“They can do whatever they want; no one is going to challenge them.”
It’s pretty simple, and the definition helps us more clearly describe how we feel and what behavior we experience.