All workplaces should have a set of expectations clearly outlined for employees; otherwise chaos would rule. Allowing your staff to dress like they’re partying at a nightclub, Skype their significant others while patients are checking in, or play on their Smartphone instead of taking patient calls could all negatively affect your image ultimately causing your patient list to dwindle over time.
Your expectations on how employees should act ethically, responsibly, and professionally while they are working for your organization can be addressed in a code of conduct.
Benefits of creating a code of conduct
Markus Wiegel, Ph.D., a staff therapist with the Behavioral Medicine Institute of Atlanta, says that the greatest benefit in creating a code of conduct is to let your employees know what is to be expected of them.
“Not being vigilant about little things typically leads to serious problems,” he says. “Part of avoiding averse transgressions later is setting expectations early and having a code of conduct that is reviewed regularly.”
Andria Lure Ryan, a partner with Fisher & Phillips in their Atlanta, Ga., office, agrees.
“Any employer, no matter how small, should have a code of conduct,” she says. “It’s important to let your employees know what your expectations are of them. Including the code of conduct in a simple handbook would suffice.”
Ryan suggests that you stress two things to your employees in an employee handbook—here’s what they are receiving as a benefit of working there and here’s what you expect of them in return – which should be set forth in your code of conduct.
Another reason to create a code of conduct is that it’s often the first step in defending an unemployment compensation claim.
“In most states, if you terminate an employee for misconduct, they are disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits,” says Ryan. “The first step to proving that they engaged in misconduct is to show the rule that they violated. So it’s a really good idea to have the rule in writing. The next step, of course, is to demonstrate that they violated it.”
A code of conduct could also be used to defend yourself from a discrimination claim. If you are going to terminate an employee because they violated a rule, a code of conduct will back you up and demonstrate that an employee was terminated because they violated one of your codes of conduct and not because of race, sex, age, national origin, pregnancy or other protected category.
“The first thing that plaintiff attorneys, courts, and jury want to see are the rules,” says Ryan. “You have to show that an employee violated one of your rules and you take the same action with any employee who violated those rules.”
Establishing a code of conduct
When creating a code of conduct, Ryan advocates for a simple list of expectations. In fact, she recommends that your code of conduct be part of your employee handbook, along with all other pertinent employment policies.
Two caveats that should be included in your code of conduct, according to Ryan. The first is to state that you can’t possibly list every single set of rules, so you expect employees to use good judgment in their actions.
“Establish that caveat from the beginning,” she says. “The other caveat is to make sure you mention that a violation of these rules will result in some sort of disciplinary action up to and including termination. Give yourself some discretion in terms of the level of discipline that you can impose. Those are two caveats that should be in any policy.”
After that, it’s just a matter of picking the rules that you want to list in a code of conduct. Some rules may be complex and robust, such as harassment and drug/alcohol policies. Others may be more simple. For Ryan, a basic list of work rules will address absenteeism, breaches of confidentiality and health-related information; courteousness to patients and co-workers; and dishonesty (not misrepresenting yourself or falsification of documents or timecards).
Wiegel says many of these rules are just common sense in terms of attire, promptness, confidentiality, and even not stealing from the practice.
“Also, what’s important to consider are changes in the work environment,” he says. “For example, four years ago, Facebook and Twitter wasn’t a problem at work. Now you may need to incorporate a policy about use of social media during work.”
More people are also using mobile devices—your practice may need to consider whether to prohibit or limit use of private cell calls during work hours.
“Social media and use of mobile devices on company time are something new for companies to consider including in their code of conduct,” he says. “Some don’t have a policy on a specific item and only wait until it becomes a problem. But by then, they don’t have a policy to enforce.”
Ryan believes in reviewing your code of conduct at least every 18 months.
“That’s a good time to take a look at your handbook and code of conduct to see if it’s still relevant and legal up-to-date,” she says. “If you have to make any changes or add things to the list of expectations, be sure to redistribute your employee handbooks and highlight what you changed.”
Enforcing your expectations
If you have a code of conduct and you don’t enforce them, it can send a bad message to the rest of your employees, warns Wiegel.
“You’re sending them a message that conduct, ethics, and professionalism are not that important,” he says. “Then they start to come in late and become slack because the office culture starts to change over time. You let your employees know what the expectations and consequences are once they are hired so if they break any of one of them, then you can enforce the consequences.”
Once you establish a code of conduct, Ryan says that it’s imperative that all violations are dealt with immediately and consistently. “You must hold your employees to your list of expectations. Be vigilant about taking meaningful steps towards discipline when needed.”
Wiegel believes that if your code of conduct is something that is discussed with your staff, reviewed periodically, and enforced, then it can have a beneficial impact simply by reducing the number of workplace problems you have due to having a set of expectations.
“Setting expectations is the most benefit of having a code of conduct,” he says. “If you set expectations, you’ll find that your employees will end up rising to those expectations.”