Should your NFP have an employee code of conduct?

Every organisation has expectations of how their staff should behave at work. But without writing down those expectations, it’s easy for misunderstandings or differing expectations to form among your staff and volunteers.

To help avoid this, more NFPs are turning to a written employee code of conduct to provide clear expectations about what how staff should or shouldn’t behave at work.

What is an employee code of conduct?

An employee code of conduct is a document that establishes legally-binding behavioural and ethical standards for employees in – and sometimes outside – a workplace. It confirms an organisation’s official position on a wide range of issues, from conflicts of interest to harassment and bullying to fraudulent behaviour.

For some organisations, a code of conduct is purely a pro forma document. However, many NFPs use it as an opportunity to communicate and clarify the organisation’s values and culture for their employees and volunteers. 

An employee code of conduct can create a contract for how employees conduct themselves and live your organisation’s values in their day-to-day work.

So why have a code of conduct?

1. It codifies your organisation’s mission, values and principles

As values-led organisations, most NFPs place their mission (why you exist) and values (what you care about) in the centre of their operations. An employee code of conduct is a document where your organisation’s mission and values can live, and where employees can find them when they need them. It’s also a place you can articulate the behaviours you expect to see – from the CEO to front line staff and also volunteers.

2. It creates standards for ethical and professional conduct

A written code of conduct should not only define professional conduct – i.e. what’s acceptable behaviour and what isn’t – it should also empower employees to handle ethical dilemmas they may encounter in their day-to-day work. It can be powerful in both encouraging discussion of what the right way to behave is – whether with clients or colleagues – and ensuring everyone across an organisation is held to the same standards.

You can also use a written professional code of conduct to benchmark behaviour, helping to measure individual and organisational performance. Your NFP’s code of conduct should be something that all employees sign up or agree to when they’re hired. That way you not only get their buy in from day one, but everyone has an agreed-upon standard.

3. It can be a reference point for other resources or policies for staff behaviour

Depending on the size and history of your organisation, you likely have a variety of different policies and other resources related to mission, vision, culture and ethics: a social media policy, a procurement policy or a Reconciliation Action Plan, for example.

These can often be in stored in different places or forms. A code of conduct can serve as a singular access point for employees to locate all of your policy documents focused on employee behaviour, as well as provide one ‘source of truth’.

4. It provides legal protections in the case of unfair dismissal claims

Employee misconduct is a complex area for any employer to navigate. A code of conduct creates transparency and removes any confusion around what constitutes misconduct by staff or volunteers, and when disciplinary action (including dismissal) may be appropriate.

The risks involved in disciplining an employee who has engaged in fraud, abusive behaviour or other harmful actions towards colleagues or clients are significantly reduced by having a code that is clear to everyone.

What should be included in a code of conduct?

While codes of conduct can vary, some typical elements include:

1. Ethical principles & values 

An opportunity to document and reiterate what your organisation’s values are and how staff and volunteers should demonstrate them in day-to-day work. It can be helpful to highlight what each value looks like in a practical, day-to-day sense. For example, if one of your values is ‘integrity’, explain what it looks like when staff or volunteers behave with integrity. 

2. Standards of conduct and accountability 

Common standards to include in your code of conduct include:

  • Un/acceptable behaviour inside or outside the workplace
  • Un/acceptable behaviour online or on social media
  • Un/acceptable use of organisational resources
  • Use of alcohol and other drugs in the workplace
  • Handling confidential information
  • Avoiding conflicts of interest
  • Acceptance of gifts

A code may also outline what disciplinary measures may result if someone breaches a standard of conduct, for example warnings, demotion, reprimand, suspension, termination, or job dismissal without rightful grounds.

3. Standards of work 

While individual performance is the realm of job description or KPI lists, some standards of work should apply to everyone. For the NFP sector, this may include policies around the sharing or storage of internal or confidential client information.

4. Space for employees and volunteers to sign

Don’t forget that a key part of a code of conduct is making sure it’s binding on everyone, so include a page for staff or volunteers to sign it – probably when they begin working at your organization.

NFP code of conduct examples

Whether you’re planning on writing one from scratch, or looking to benchmark your existing code of conduct, here are three Australian NFP codes of conduct that might give you some ideas:

  • CARE Australia’s code (PDF) has the organisation’s values front and centre as well as key employee expectations and how to report breaches of the code.
  • The St Vincent de Paul Society (NSW) has a shared code of conduct (PDF) for all personnel – including members, volunteers and employees.

Would you be happy to share your organisation’s code of conduct to help others in the sector with creating their own? If so, please paste a link in the comments below.

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