WHAT I WOULDN'T DO: Legal Updates from HR's Trenches: Yes, you need a code of conduct. What should it say?

AuthorHyman, Jon

When a Pennsylvania brewery noticed a large number of online complaints about employees' sexist behaviors, its owner (who was at the center of those allegations) stepped away. The brewery also decided to publish a comprehensive new code of conduct on its website.

Most companies have anti-harassment policies. Far fewer include behaviors that fall outside of illegal protected-class workplace harassment. The time has come for all employers to adopt a code of conduct in addition to their harassment policy--and let all employees, customers and vendors know that any mistreatment of employees or others will not be tolerated. What should it include, and to whom should it apply? Some tips:

What it should contain

* An introduction that sets forth the core values you are protecting.

* An explanation of scope--to whom it applies (staff, contractors, customers, vendors, others) and where (at work, away from work, on personal time, in-person and during online conversations, text messages and social media posts). Don't limit your code of conduct to employees only. Anyone who enters your premises and could interact with employees should be subject to the same expectations.

* A delineation of expected behaviors. Think respect.

* A delineation of unacceptable and prohibited behaviors--racism, sexism (and other -isms), harassment, bullying, physical violence, etc.

* An explanation of how complaints should be made, and to whom.

* An unequivocal promise of no retaliation.

How to address violations

For employees, it depends on the severity of the offense. Employers have a legal obligation in cases of protected-class harassment to instill corrective action reasonably likely to stop future harassment (possibly including termination). For nonprotected-class harassment or other code of conduct violations, the...

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