Conduct code can help reduce work violence

By G. Michael Barton, SPHR

Vice President of Human Resources

Regional Medical Center

Madisonville, KY

The term "code of conduct" often conjures up thoughts of a rigid, military method of controlling employee behavior. But when properly developed and used, a code of conduct can be an effective tool for enhancing communication and reducing employee disputes in your health care facility.

The code of conduct can serve as the foundation for all the other steps you take in ensuring that your employees and patients are treated fairly and are safe in the facility. Unlike specific policies addressing violence and other issues, a code of conduct does not lay out specific rules and procedures. Rather, it establishes the basic philosophy on which the facility operates.

In his critically-acclaimed book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey stresses the importance of developing a personal mission statement. Of particular importance for health care risk managers developing a code of conduct, Covey discusses the need to "begin with the end in mind." To do that, a personal mission statement is necessary. For an individual, that statement would focus on striving for improved character, achievements, contributions, or defined values.

For a health care organization, the mission statement can take the form of a code of conduct, which differs from the organization’s mission statement. The organization’s mission statement will focus on what the health care organization wants to achieve, but the code of conduct focuses more narrowly on how each individual wants to be treated in the workplace. A well-designed code of conduct can embellish an organization’s mission statement by increasing the personal involvement and commitment of employees to treat each other as valuable team members.

But of course, that’s what everyone is trying to do. How can a simple code of conduct help you achieve what organizations everywhere seek to accomplish? The idea works because a code of conduct establishes what is important to all members of an organization.

A health care organization’s code of conduct can be made up of the following sections:

• general opening statement;

• philosophy statement;

• statements of responsibilities.

All three elements must be addressed if the code of conduct is to be effective.

The opening statement, for instance, should note that the code of conduct has been developed through a mutual agreement among employees in all departments and all levels throughout the organization. (See sample code of conduct for examples of how each of these sections might be written, p. 94.)

The employees participating in developing the code of conduct must determine what values should be affirmed in the code. Some examples might include trust, respect, and honesty. These values could be used to establish an atmosphere of open communication that encourages all team members to participate equally.

Determine your philosophy

After establishing the basis for the code of conduct, a philosophy statement should be developed that succinctly delineates how the organization will encourage employees in their interactions with one another. For example, you may wish to emphasize that open communication is desired and that everyone should be able to speak up without fear of reprisal.

The philosophy statement should be developed jointly by employees and the management staff. This allows commitment from all levels of the organization. It also ensures the philosophy statement is a true reflection of how all members of the organization visualize establishing open communication.

Finally, the responsibilities of each individual should be established and agreed upon. The code of conduct might describe several important issues and explain how they are to be handled within the health care organization. This section of the code might explain that all employees, associates, patients, and others are to be treated with dignity and respect. This section also could delineate counterproductive behavior such as gossiping and stereotyping.

The organization must be committed to using the code of conduct as a tool to guide effective communication. No code of conduct by itself can eliminate fear in an organization. Only individuals working together as a team can accomplish this.

Violations of the code of conduct should be reviewed independently by a review committee comprised of employees who are at different levels in the organization. This peer review committee must be given the authority to work with the employee before any intervention from management staff. Without that important step, the code of conduct might be seen as only an administrative ploy allowing management to punish employees for a wide range of misdeeds.

Even with a well-written code of conduct, there is the risk that some employees will not take it seriously. But if the code is developed with the sincere goal of a better working environment for all employees, it will be difficult for most organizational members not to commit to it.