In a perfect world, we’d all treat each other respectfully at work with no need for managers to explicitly clarify what that respect looks like.
For better or worse, though, in reality people need to be told and shown what kind of words and actions are acceptable in their workplaces. They also need to be held accountable when they don’t treat fellow employees with civility and respect.
However, communicating which behaviors and words are acceptable isn’t exactly a simple task for managers. It’s much easier to list corporate values than it is to show and tell employees what those values look like.
One tool that can help clarify expectations for workplace behavior is adopting a “code of civility.”
A code of civility, in short, is a brief list of behaviors or statements about behavior that are easy for employees to understand, remember, and follow.
A Code of Conduct vs. a Code of Civility
You’re probably already familiar with the need for a code of conduct in the employee handbook.
The code of conduct is part of a document that’s approved by lawyers. It’s probably a relatively long document — at least a full page — that fits in with other official employee policies surrounding things like paid time off, discipline, and grounds for dismissal.
Tucker Miller, ELI’s Managing Vice President of Learning Solutions and Consulting, wrote the following about an ideal code of conduct:
“An organization’s Code of Business Conduct can be a helpful living document, providing an overview of expectations on an array of topics. Often the guidelines are the same throughout the organization, regardless of what country you are in. In essence, the Code identifies (a) if this comes up, (b) here’s what we do or don’t do within our company, (c) and if you know of a problem or need more guidance, here’s where we want you to go for help.”
A code of conduct is important, and it can even overlap with a code of civility. You’re also welcome to include the code of civility in the employee handbook.
But what we’re referring to in this post as a “code of civility” is simpler and more actionable than a code of conduct.
A code of civility should be written in layman’s terms with no technical or legal jargon. It should be brief enough that employees can remember the entire code with little effort. Where a code of conduct can feel regulatory and require some time to study, a code of civility has a narrower focus, feels casual, and can be understood quickly.
Putting Values Into Action
As we wrote in our post on the operationalization of civility, it’s important to clarify what organizational values look like in action.
For example, some people might interpret the value of “transparency and directness” to mean that it’s not okay to gossip. Others might interpret it to mean that they can state their opinions freely without considering too carefully how it will make others feel. Still other employees might think the value of “transparency” applies to interactions with customers, but not to leaders.
At ELI, we suggest making values actionable by giving examples of what we call “value-linked behaviors.” Here are some examples of clear, visual, and specific value-linked behaviors that might be a good fit for a code of civility:
- We say “please” and “thank you.”
- We let people finish speaking without interrupting them.
- We schedule as few meetings as possible — and we make them as small as possible— to respect each other’s time.
- We don’t stay in the office past 5 p.m.
- When we see each other, we greet each other and acknowledge one another.
- We say “I’m sorry” freely, and we forgive one another.
All those examples are so specific that you can almost see each of them playing out in your mind’s eye. But you might also want to add slightly more general actions to your code of civility, such as these:
- We celebrate each other’s milestones.
- We cover for one another in times of need.
- We assume the best of each other.
- We call out behavior that goes against our values.
- We welcome constructive criticism.
Of course, these are all just examples. Your organization’s values will depend on your unique goals and brand.
How to Develop Your Code of Civility
A good way to come up with a code of civility that’s meaningful to your organization is to simply have a discussion about it with colleagues.
As long as employees feel comfortable speaking up and discussing some sensitive issues at work, they’ll probably have plenty of input on what kind of behaviors they want to see and what kind of behaviors need to change.
Managers can discuss ideas with employees one-on-one, in small groups, or even in a few larger group sessions — whatever is likely to get the best results. But you may be surprised to find that distinct themes emerge quickly about what behavior they want to see.
The important thing is that after the discussion, you edit the takeaways down to as few points as you can so that you can make the code of civility as easy as possible to remember while still keeping the integrity of the message intact.
Troubleshooting a Code of Civility
It’s certainly possible for the HR team or leadership team to spend hours creating a wonderful code of civility and still find that it’s not making a real difference in employee behavior.
If that’s the case, the lack of progress might come down to a few different causes.
First of all, all the lipservice in the world won’t help change employee behavior if leaders treat civility guidelines as nothing more than a compliance issue, or something for “other people” to follow but that they can personally ignore.
Employees learn what’s acceptable at work by watching what leaders do, even if the official guidelines say otherwise.
Secondly, employees might benefit from a chance to “practice” some of the more important or nuanced behaviors called for in the code of civility. Managers, in particular, should occasionally work with HR professionals on the proper and most effective way to apologize or react to criticism or other bad news. Professional trainers can help managers identify potential stumbling blocks or opportunities to improve.
If you’re looking for a training organization to help you with this kind of practice, we encourage you to reach out to us at ELI. All of our training can be done fully remotely, and our team of professionals has years of experience training both leaders and employees to create a lasting culture of civility. Click here to request a demo.