Code of Conduct vs Code of Ethics: A Comparative Analysis

Code of Ethics and Code of Conduct - What's the Difference?

Do you have a Code of Ethics or a Code of Conduct?

What is a Code of Ethics? What is a Code of Conduct?

They are, in fact, two unique documents. A Code of Ethics governs decision-making, and a Code of Conduct govern actions. They both represent two common ways that companies self-regulate. They are often associated with large companies, and provide direction to employees and establish a public image of good behavior, both of which benefit businesses of any size.

However, any company large or small, public or private, will benefit from having a set of documented rules in place where employees and other stakeholders can reference to ensure they are performing in their positions as expected by the company.

What is a Code of Ethics?

Sometimes referred to as a value statement, it behaves like the "Company's Constitution" with general principles to help guide employee behaviour. The document outlines a set of principles that affect decision-making. For example, if an organization is committed to protecting the environment and "being green", the code of ethics will state that there is an expectation for any employee faced with a problem, to choose the most "green" solution. It works on the bases of "treat others as you would like to be treated."

When faced with ethical dilemmas or debatable situations, what is articulated in the Code of Ethics can help guide decision-making.

What is a Code of Conduct?

The Code of Conduct provides the meat and potatoes to the Code of Ethics. A Code of Conduct applies the Code of Ethics to various relevant situations. A rule in the Code of Ethics might state that all employees will obey the law. A Code of Conduct might list several specific laws relevant to different areas of organizational operations, or industry, that employees need to obey.

The Code of Conduct outlines specific behaviours that are required or prohibited as a condition of ongoing employment. It might forbid sexual harassment, racial intimidation or viewing inappropriate or unauthorized content on company computers. Codes, along with other measures, have helped some companies dig themselves out of scandals, and have helped many companies build a healthier workplace climate and reputation.

An example of an ethical dilemma employees regularly face is gift-giving and accepting. This can sometimes be tricky to navigate because, in some cultures, small gifts are tokens of respect and gratitude. Acceptance of large gifts may produce the appearance of an improper relationship between the company and the recipient and vice versa. Work with management while consulting the Code to reach a generally accepted resolution.

Is a Code of Conduct the Same as a Code of Ethics?

Codes of Conduct and Ethics share some similarities as they aim to direct employees' behavior. Ethics guidelines aim to direct values and decisions affecting the employees' decision-making. In contrast, Conduct regulations specify specific actions that are deemed appropriate or inappropriate. In both cases, the organization strives to establish a wide range of acceptable employee behaviors to ensure a healthy working environment.

What Are the Differences Between a Code of Ethics and a Code of Conduct?

With similarities come differences. Both are used in an attempt to regulate behavior in very different ways. A Code of Conduct is a set of rules that outline acceptable behaviors and actions expected of employees within an organization. These rules often focus on behavior in the workplace and may include areas such as discrimination, harassment, and conflicts of interest. On the other hand, a Code of Ethics is a set of guidelines that establish ethical principles and standards of behavior that govern the conduct of a particular profession or group. These guidelines focus on ethical principles beyond the workplace and extend to the broader society.

Working Together:

More prominent organizations sometimes have both codes in separate formats or combined into one general Ethics document that blends principles for the right action with a list of required or forbidden actions.

For The Smaller Business:

Many smaller businesses can survive without a formal Code in either sense. For example, if a business has 1-10 employees, generally, everyone talks and interacts with each other daily. So communicating appropriate behavior is much easier. However, as smaller businesses increase employee numbers, ethical hazards and risks can increase. These documents can help shape cultural expectations about behavior and serve as a solid marketing tool for potential business partners or clients.


Either way, these documents must be treated consistently in every instance of wrongdoing. The Code needs to apply to every employee from the ground up, and no matter how small the violation, appropriate discipline needs to occur. For example, if your code stipulates that theft of company property is prohibited, and an employee takes home one pack of Post-it notes from the supply inventory, that's theft and should be treated as such.

These documents help employees understand how they can feel good about contributing to the company's future success. An organization's culture differs from industry to industry, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution for building and adopting a robust organizational culture. Tools to help manage employees' expectations and gather information on actions that challenge the code will help build and strengthen the internal culture.

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photo Amanda Nieweler
About the Author
Amanda writes for WhistleBlower Security about ethics, compliance, workplace culture, and whistleblower hotlines. Amanda brings her nearly two decades of risk and compliance experience to the WBS blog where she is dedicated to helping people and companies promote speak-up cultures.

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