In the wake of the ‘Barnaby Joyce affair’, and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s subsequent announcement of a new code of conduct that bans sex between ministers and staff, the spotlight is well and truly on workplace liaisons.
But it also raises the question of what is a ‘code of conduct’ in the workplace, and more precisely, does Mr Turnbull’s – to borrow a colloquialism – pass the pub test?
Good practice in developing a comprehensive and robust code of conduct should involve all stakeholders, especially employees, in the process. It's also vital to identify the key areas that need codes of conduct – such as discipline and workplace relationships. Most importantly of all, the organisation must circulate a draft code of conduct to employees for comment and review it regularly. Finally, have a human resources expert and employment lawyer sign off on it.
So what is a code of conduct?
In their simplest forms, codes of conduct are policies that stipulate acceptable standards of behaviour at work and when employees are representing their organisation. They can also relate to a set of professional standards or practices. A code of conduct provides rules and boundaries that all employees (including management) are bound by and that employers can refer to in regard to appropriate or accepted behaviours, be they ethical, professional or disciplinary.
Based upon the above, the changes that the Prime Minister proposed appear not to pass the pub test. So let’s examine why these changes are likely not to be effective in the long term.
Were all stakeholders, especially employees, involved in the process?
The fact that this appears to be policy on the run – as the Prime Minister had dismissed the suggestion of a change to the code of conduct before later embracing it, and also that no other sources had indicated that this change to the code of conduct was coming – clearly suggests that stakeholders were not given input into what is now described as the ‘bonking ban’. The reaction of some in the Coalition when the code of conduct amendment was announced is a further key indicator that their broad input was not sought.
So, to the follow-up point.
Undertake a regular review of the code of conduct
It was clear in the Prime Minister’s statement that the reasons for the need to address and update the code of conduct was because it was outdated. This identifies two key issues. Firstly, the code of conduct appears not to be considered an important enough document to be regularly reviewed. Secondly, this may result in a knee-jerk approach to issues when the code is found to be wanting. That clearly appears to be the case here.
Have a human resources expert and employment lawyer sign off on it
Not being privileged to the inner sanctum of the decision-making behind this process and who signed off on it, it's difficult to judge the processes. However, we can postulate some questions around the development of such hard and fast rules regarding relationships between a federal government minister and their staff, in the context of the recent dual citizenship issues.
- If, as a result of this turmoil, all ministers are now subject to public scrutiny of their private lives – as with the citizenship issues – when questions are raised will ministers and their staff be required to provide statements about their private lives for the public record?
- If someone is elevated to a ministerial position from the backbench, do they have to provide a statement that they are not in a sexual relationship with a staff member and update this annually for the public record?
- The Prime Minister is refusing to investigate the arrangement by which the Deputy Prime Minister came to live rent-free, as he has his word there is no breach of the guidelines. Is this honour system the same for someone accused of a workplace relationship?
- When does a relationship became a relationship?
- Are there grounds for unfair dismissal? (According to the code this does not apply to other federal politicians. It could be argued that such a relationship does not go to the reason for someone being promoted to the ministry in the first place).
I ask these questions, as a well-structured and thought-through code of conduct provides a fair, consistent and valuable signal to all in the organisation (employers and employees). It answers and reflects the organisation’s core values, particularly when it comes to what have often been described as these ‘moments of truth’.
Let’s also not forget that up to 40 per cent of relationships start at the workplace. So it's important that policies and practices are developed to ensure relationships are managed in the workplace, both for the two people in the relationship and those who work with them. In this context, there should be processes where, for example, HR is informed so it understands and can manage how these people work together and with other staff. Also, it's important from the context of the power-distance relationship that may be evidence in the relationship. This is particularly important if the relationship breaks down.
Taking this approach to policy development goes a long way to effective, fair and equitable policy development, and reflects a culture of acceptance and respect. It also goes a long way to negate policy that can cause more problems than it solves.