Building a Culture Code to Promote Respect in the Workplace

Authors: Sarah Crawford and Christian Andres Alfaro

A strong culture codewhich alternatively may be called a code of conduct or civility codesets expectations about how employees should interact in order to create a healthy workplace culture. A culture code can help to foster a safe and constructive working environment in which all employees feel accepted and supported to better serve the mission of the company. A code also bolsters accountability at all levels within the organization. 

A culture code should communicate the company’s mission, vision, goals, values, and norms. The code also can build community and describe the spirit and traditions of the organization through quotes, lighthearted anecdotes, and stories. For example, the code could tell the story behind the founding of the company, stories of individual customers and clients, or of accomplishments both big and small.

A culture code establishes expectations for employees to be respectful and accepting of others who may come from different walks of life and have different lifestyles and beliefs. A code can set expectations about positive behaviors by encouraging employees to act as allies to confront bias, to serve as a mentor, to utilize best practices to promote diversity in hiring, etc.

The code also should provide examples of bias and behavior that will not be allowed or tolerated in the workplace, such as microaggressions, harassment, discrimination, and retaliation. The code should address behavior directed toward anyone, regardless of whether they are colleagues, supervisors, junior staff, interns, volunteers, independent contractors, customers, clients, etc. The code should set out policies and processes for individuals to bring forward concerns and formal complaints and identify key personnel to handle those concerns and complaints

The code should address conduct that occurs not only in the workplace, but also offsite and online, for example expected behavior at conferences and respectful communication on social media and text messages. The code should also address conduct during and outside of regular work hours, for example conduct at a work-related social event or with a colleague after normal working hours. 

During the process of drafting a culture code, employees should be involved in providing input and feedback on the content. This may be accomplished by convening a working group that includes employees representing various levels, departments, job functions, and locations. This is particularly useful to identify key concerns, gaps, and solutions for the organization. The code should be written in plain language that is easily understood and uses examples tailored to the workplace. 

Leadership should review, approve, and endorse the code before it is finalized. An introduction from the head of the organization can communicate the importance of the code and the core values to the day-to-day operations and to make clear that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. It is also critical for those at the top of the organization to model the positive behaviors described in the code.

When rolling out a new culture code, employees should participate in interactive training to review the content, to reinforce how the expectations about behavior relate to the organization’s mission and core values, to teach skills, and to provide opportunity for meaningful discussion. The code, policies and procedures, contact information for key personnel to handle complaints and concerns, and any other related information should be easily accessible to all employees, either online or in writing. 

To reinforce the principles on an ongoing basis, the code should be integrated with the onboarding process and regular training programs. Employees could be asked to sign a statement that they have read and agree to follow the code. A poster in the breakroom could highlight the key aspects of the code, such as core values, expected behaviors, and contact information for key personnel to handle concerns and complaints. At events, remarks and written materials could include a reminder of behaviors that are encouraged and behaviors that will not be tolerated, consistent with the culture code. 

Building a strong workplace culture requires the efforts of every employee in the organization. By setting expectations about employee behavior, a culture code can provide a powerful tool to promote a respectful workplace that is key to fulfilling the mission of the organization.

Resources and Sample Codes: