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From Aspirational to Actual: Aligning Your Code of Conduct with Your Organization’s Values

Recent employee research has shown that people seek workplaces that match their values. Employees want to champion their organization’s values, goals, and purpose. But when an organization’s actions are misaligned with the ideals they propose in something like their Code of Conduct, employees may blow the whistle, walk away, or both. This reaction is rooted in a concept called rational loyalty.

Although trust is earned over time, it can crumble instantly, underscoring the urgency to evolve a code of conduct from a virtue-signaling compliance requirement to a dynamic embodiment of values that can guide an entire workforce. So, how exactly do we align our code of conduct to our aspirational values?

The Purpose of Codes of Conduct

Codes of conduct are increasingly written to meet the demands of an external audience such as suppliers, clients, and local regulators. This trend may explain why codes of conduct are often presented as branding and marketing materials with glossy images and bland, aspirational statements.

Such outward-facing documents may serve a purpose, but they distract from what codes of conduct should be. Codes of conduct should be inward facing, first and foremost, and provide employees at all levels of the organization with a practical guide on:

  • What their organization stands for
  • How the organization makes values-based decisions
  • How the organization expects its employees to behave
  • The kind of behavior employees should expect from their colleagues

The Difference Between Values and Compliance

Codes of conduct often cover both values and compliance, but the distinction between the two can easily be lost. Put simply, values are “what we choose to do,” and compliance is “what we are required to do.” This may be oversimplified; however, ethical conduct is increasingly subject to legal and regulatory obligations. Where this crossover occurs, it is essential for codes of conduct to clearly distinguish between an employee’s ethical, regulatory, and legal obligations.

Generally, values set higher standards than laws or regulations. They also fill the gaps between laws and regulations and provide guidance where the applications of laws and regulations are unclear or open to interpretation.

Your Organization’s Culture: Aspirational vs. Actual Values

We must live by our codes of conduct actively, not passively. They must be integral to the employees’ lived experience, not just a document that is pulled out when something goes wrong. Your organization’s purpose and values must resonate with and be part of day-to-day conversations from the top down. Those values should be referenced and recognizable in every interaction and in every internal and external decision.

3 Ways to Make the Aspirational Culture in Your Organization’s Code of Conduct the Actual Culture

So, how does an organization close the gap between the aspirational and the actual? How do they move from “this is how we would like to be” to “this is who we are”? Answering these questions involves considerable and sustained effort.

Here are our top three tips to get started.

1. Revisit Your Code of Conduct

Corporate values should be integrated into every policy and procedure, from recruitment and supplier selection to strategic decision-making in client conversations and about employee welfare. It should be a golden thread that joins everything else together.

Be sure your Code of Conduct:

  • Makes clear what your organization stands for
  • Clarifies how you make values-based decisions
  • Describes how you expect employees to behave
  • Explains the behavior that your employees should expect from their colleagues

Another thing to consider including in your code of conduct is an ethical decision-making framework. Ethical decision-making frameworks are often included in codes of conduct but are rarely referenced in actual meetings. Decisions are rarely tested or explained through the means that organizations have established for themselves for making “difficult” decisions.

Making values and decision-making frameworks part of the everyday discourse of an organization develops a shared ethical vocabulary and a way of expressing, discussing, and resolving ethical issues.

2. Celebrate Values

Many learning programs on codes of conduct focus on incidents, punishments, and ethical failures. This approach associates conduct with wrongdoing. But values are positive, not negative, so it is important to shift the focus to a celebration of good conduct.

Using scenarios in learning videos is a great way to illustrate organizational values. Showcasing employees making good decisions and managers applauding them for doing so is a powerful way of changing behavior and sustaining that change.

3. Maintain Continuous Education

A single training course on a code of conduct is unlikely to bring long-lasting organizational change. eLearning starts the conversation, but that conversation must be sustained through an ongoing program. Micro and spaced learning techniques are a great way of keeping the conversation going.

A Compliance Partner Can Bring Your Code of Conduct of Life

At GP Strategies, we are experts at bringing corporate purpose and values to life and embedding them successfully at all levels of an organization through practical and thought-provoking learning solutions. Learn more about how our work can help revitalize your Code of Conduct and insert your values and compliance requirements into everyday learning moments.

About the Authors

Liz Hornby
Liz joined the GP Strategies Learning Experience team (previously LEO Learning) 13 years ago and acts as an in-house compliance content specialist. After studying at Nottingham and Cambridge Universities, Liz qualified as a barrister and went on to work for both the London Stock Exchange and The Securities Association (a predecessor of the Financial Conduct Authority). She then moved into compliance, working for Nomura International plc and Goldman Sachs, before becoming a compliance consultant in 1994. As a consultant, she advised and worked with a broad range of financial services firms. Liz has a Masters Degree in International Business Ethics and Corporate Governance from the University of London and a PhD on whistleblowing in the UK banking industry. Liz was Deputy Chairman of the Compliance Forum Committee of the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investments (CISI) for many years and is a part-time lecturer in Corporate Governance and Ethics at the University of London.

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