The Code of Conduct… Reimagined

Your code of conduct is the window to the soul of your company. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but it’s true. It is a bold statement to your employees, your customers, your board, your vendors, the partners of the values and behaviors you expect and demand, and the culture you collectively work together to build and protect. If you’re really honest with yourself, is your current code of conduct a true reflection of your culture, or is it checking the boxes?

What does the modern code look like? As much as the global workforce has changed, your code need to do the same. I characterize the modern code in 3 primary components: access, relevance, and effectiveness.


Think of your code as the front door to your ethics & compliance program. We consume information differently in the 21st century. According to a 2017 Pew Research study, 85% of U.S. adults get their news on an online device, and 66% of the global population uses mobile devices. We have become accustomed to accessing the information we need just at the time we need it. Is your code meeting those new demands? Is it accessible on a mobile device? And I’m not talking about being able to download the PDF to a smart phone. Your code should be accessible, readable, and searchable, with the smart device user in mind. Can your stakeholders easily find your code or is it buried where only a savvy web searcher can find it?


Codes have evolved over the years. Remember those 90 page codes of conduct? Yeah, I wrote one of those too. And at the time, I was pretty darn proud of it. The prevailing school of thought at the time was that if you included every possible risk area posed to the company, you had a stellar code. But those codes were bogged down with legalese and felt more like the Ten Commandments and all the things you weren’t supposed to do. Not very uplifting, right? And then we moved on to the values-based Code, with a more aspirational spin. But let’s face it—it was a kinder, gentler code but still boring and nobody read it willingly. One common misstep with values-based codes is they over-rotate from the unabridged version to a document that is so high level that employees are left with an ambiguous, document of “grey areas.” Let’s approach the Code in a way to model the positive behavior you want to see, instead of what you’re trying to avoid.

Think of your Code as an opportunity for storytelling

Think of your Code as an opportunity for storytelling. Give your employees the opportunity to describe what the values mean, in their words—and it’s even more impactful in video form. Emphasize clear examples of what “doing the right thing” really looks like in your company. Share stories of real people who made difficult decisions. Identify ways to make your code a tool—think of your Code as the USA Today of your culture—what are the most important pieces of information you want to draw attention to? The tone of your code should model the voice of your culture- not your corporate counsel’s- and be written in a way that resonates and makes sense to every employee.


The simple act of publishing your Code says nothing about the effectiveness of the words on the page. Even the DOJ emphasizes the importance of how policies and procedures are communicated in their “Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs.” If you get it right, your employees will use the Code as a tool- a reference guide- to access the information they need, when they need it. Attestations do nothing to demonstrate effectiveness, but rather perpetuate a check-the-box, reactive approach to compliance.

Identify ways to think differently about your Code’s effectiveness:

  • Are you measuring traffic to your Code? Are there certain risk areas that are spiking? Do you have a team or location that has increased traffic to the Code? This data can serve as the canary in your coal mine of a potential issue to explore, long before a call is ever made to your helpline.
  • How are your employees staying engaged with the content?
  • How has behavior changed as a result of your Code (whether it’s a launch, refresh, or communication on a risk topic)?
  • Have you tested employee sentiment or trust in the Ethics & Compliance program as a result through interacting with you through the Code?
  • Are employees referencing the Code in business meetings or strategic decisions?
  • Are you creating thought-provoking communications that pique interest in targeted areas of your Code?

Your ultimate goal with the Code should be to articulate how each person is responsible and accountable to driving ethics to the center of your business, one decision at a time.