Like stationery cupboards and monthly accounts, codes of conduct are one of those necessities of life in any business.

Whether you’re a small or medium enterprise or a large and complex organisation spread across multiple locations, a code of conduct sets the benchmark of expectation for the behaviour of your workforce.

Codes of conduct take many forms.  Some are exceptionally long – a phone book of Policies and Procedures which attempt to anticipate every possible scenario and explicitly forbid the worst category of behaviour from the least reliable employee. Others are short and elegant, placing maximum trust in the maturity and honesty of the workforce.

Some are designed as a trap – if you break any of these rules, we’ll have an excuse to terminate your employment.  Others are designed as an invitation – do the right thing by us, and we’ll do the right thing by you.

Some codes are complex by necessity, reflecting the strict compliance regimes of highly regulated industries such as financial services or medicine.  Others are loose and relaxed, reflecting the new-age approaches to work pioneered in Silicon Valley over the past decade. Work when and where you like, do no harm, enjoy the free lunch.

In a world of extremes, we’ve all seen attempts at over-regulation (the five-page working from home checklist, for example) and we’ve all drooled over the progressive policies of companies such as Netflix, which offers its employees unlimited leave, amongst other things.  Their five word expense policy (“act in Netflix’s best interests”) is the gold standard for a new type of policy that treats employees like adults.

In designing a code – no matter what you call it and what it looks like – it’s worth remembering two important things.  First: a code will only work if it is founded in a sound statement of the organisation’s purpose, values and principles (what we call the Ethical Framework). Second: no code can replace active hands-on management of your culture and your people.

An ethical framework expresses fundamental principles that that help guide us through terrain where no rule is in place or where matters are genuinely unclear. This is a critical foundation document for any organisation – it is, quite literally, what we believe in and what standards we uphold. It must be consistently embraced by every member of the organisation in order to be effective.

An ethical framework demands something more than mere compliance. It asks employees to exercise judgement and accept personal responsibility for the decisions they make.

A well drafted code of conduct will be consistent with the framework, but it will provide much more specific guidance. For example, where your ethical framework espouses values such as transparency and accountability, the code of conduct might explicitly spell out the conflict of interest policy or the rules surrounding gifts and benefits.

Ethical frameworks and codes of conduct are not magic bullets to solve an organisation’s problems. The fact a company has created these documents will not guarantee that all employees will do the right thing every time. But approached with the proper degree of care and sophistication, the very process of developing these codes can have a profoundly positive effect on the culture of an enterprise.

In establishing the things you believe in and identifying the behaviours you wish to encourage, you establish a framework for a great corporate culture – one based on respect, trust, collaboration and accountability. And who wouldn’t want that?