Setting the Stage for Prevention
A Code of Conduct is an important tool you can use to establish the acceptable types of interactions that take place at your youth-serving organization (YSO)—and what’s expected from anyone in a position of responsibility for children/youth in your care, from junior employees and volunteers to senior management.
What Should Your Code of Conduct include?
Typically, a Code of Conduct will include information such as:
- Boundaries of physical, sexual, and verbal behavior
- Staff-to-child ratios
- Guidance about being alone with children/youth
- Awareness of power differentials and abuse of power
- Bullying, harassment, and discrimination
- Interpersonal communication with children using electronic and social media
- Compliance with the policies and procedures of your YSO and the state’s child abuse reporting laws
Codes of Conduct can be used to address interactions between your staff and children/youth; among your staff members; between your staff members and parents; and among your children/youth. Implemented thoroughly and consistently, your Code of Conduct serves as an “early warning system” that can detect any inappropriate or harmful behaviors as they occur so that your supervisors, managers, and staff can address them before they become chronic—or, ideally, before the children/youth you care for are harmed.
Writing Your Code of Conduct
Your Code of Conduct should be written in clear language, defining the behaviors that your organization considers appropriate, inappropriate, or harmful. Depending on the kinds of services your YSO provides, your Code of Conduct should anticipate and contain guidance for typical interactions—both inside and outside of your facilities. It should consider interactions of every size, from one-on-one contact to small and large group situations, and every duration (one-hour small group instruction, all-day events, overnight trips, multi-week residential camps, etc.).
If you’re building your Code of Conduct for the first time, you may find that input from your front-line staff in regular contact with children/youth—along with parents and the children/youth themselves—is helpful and contributes to a sense of shared awareness and responsibility.
Since you can’t possibly include descriptions of every situation and interaction that may arise, it’s helpful to include in your Code of Conduct your Mission Statement (the purpose of your YSO) and a set of ethical practices (Code of Ethics) that reflect the core standards and principles that guide your activities. Combined, your Mission Statements and Codes of Ethics can guide your staff and volunteers in decision-making when circumstances are uncommon, unclear, or unexpected.
For your children/youth, a simple set of “rules and regulations” can list the behaviors you expect, emphasize that the rules are there to keep everyone safe, and identify to whom they should report if the rules aren’t being followed.
Your Code of Conduct should also include a clear description of your YSO’s reporting lines, and the process you’ll follow when behavioral concerns or breaches of the Code of Conduct are observed and/or reported. It should define your policies for handling all inappropriate behavior, including those that could possibly be handled internally by a supervisor or manager, and those that “cross the line” into causing harm and which must be reported to police or Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).
In either case, once a situation is reported, your administrators and supervisors must then ensure that all allegations are addressed in line with the organization’s protocol and Massachusetts law. Your staff and volunteers must trust that their reports will be responded to, and will be handled quickly and appropriately. They must also trust that they will not be penalized for coming forward and raising issues, questions, or concerns. Negative consequences to a person who reports a concern will prevent others from coming forward—thus increasing the potential risk to children.
Basic Elements of a Code of Conduct
- Mission Statement
- Ethical Principles and Standards
- Guidance on, and definitions of specific behaviors/interactions common and relevant to the YSO
- Appropriate, inappropriate, harmful
- Encouraged vs. prohibited behaviors and interactions
- Reporting obligations, procedures and process
- Investigation and monitoring procedures
- Statement of Receipt and Agreement
- Signature Block
How to Use a Code of Conduct at Your YSO
Present Your Code of Conduct to Applicants
Putting your Code of Conduct to use starts with your screening and hiring process for all prospective administrators, staff, and volunteers. You can give your Code of Conduct to your applicants, read and discuss it as part of their personal interview, and ask them to sign it to acknowledge they’ve received it and agree to comply with its requirements. If the candidate is hired, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of their signature in their personnel file.
State Monitoring and documentation strategies in your Code of Conduct
Monitoring and documentation strategies for your YSO’s leadership should also be included in your Code of Conduct implementation. By reinforcing safety policies and your Code of Conduct through staff meetings and other training or professional development opportunities, you can ensure the topic is addressed regularly. That way, it will be easier for your staff to talk about their concerns and highlight the day-to-day behaviors that may be giving them some concern. In this way, a Code of Conduct becomes not only a guide for daily interactions by your supervisors, employees, and volunteers, but also a tool that fosters awareness and conversations about behaviors—both those that are appropriate and beneficial, and those that fall outside of your defined boundaries.
Integrate your Code of Conduct into your YSO’s performance appraisal process
Integrating your Code of Conduct into your YSO’s performance appraisal process also reinforces its role as a shared responsibility that serves to protect everyone in the organization, promoting a sense of both personal and professional ownership. Ultimately, it can help you to foster the kind of culture that promotes mutual respect, empathy, reciprocity, and dignity—one that encourages people to come forward and helps them to feel safe in doing so.
Code of Conduct How-To in 3 Steps
Step 1: Developing the Code of Conduct
- Use the model Codes provided in Appendix 9 to lay out the basic elements of a Code of Conduct and signature page. Consider a simpler Code for children/youth.
- If a YSO is affiliated with a parent or national organization, check to see if they have published suggested Codes of Conduct as models.
- If they exist, compliance with professional licensing, certification, legislative, or regulatory requirements for YSOs concerning staff behavior or interactions may be required. If so, ensure they are addressed and integrated.
- In developing the Code, solicit input from supervisors, staff, volunteers, parents, children, and youth in terms of the day-to-day behaviors that are important to them.
- Evaluate the different levels of risk presented by the YSO’s range of activities.
- Provide clear guidance on maintaining appropriate boundaries and list the verbal and physical behaviors that are acceptable, appropriate and expected, as well as those that are prohibited, inappropriate, or harmful.
- Include prohibition of pornography, sexual innuendo in jokes or conversation, sexual/intimate contact, and discussion of physical/sexual attributes.
- Include the requirement to follow the child abuse reporting laws of the Commonwealth and the consequences for failing to report.
- Include language about the protections in place for people who come forward to discuss or report violations of the Code.
- Use the guidance provided to draft a Mission Statement/Code of Ethics to help guide decision making in situations not specifically described in the Code.
- If appropriate, address issues of staff to children/youth ratios, 1-on-1 interactions with children/youth, transportation in personal vehicles, gift-giving, electronic and social media contact with youth (Also see Safe Environment and Safe Technology section below), out-of-program contact between staff and children/youth, and drug and alcohol use when supervising children/youth.
- If appropriate, include guidance on high-prorisk situations (changing, bathroom activities, overnight stays, etc.).
- Include the consequences for breaching the Code on the signature page.
- Smaller YSOs, depending on their size, staff, and range of activities can create an abbreviated Code that addresses “Rules and Regulations” for behavior that pertain to staff, volunteers, parents, and youth.
Step 2: Implementing the Code of Conduct
- Ensure that the Code provides a description of who is responsible for implementing the Code and to whom concerns or reports should be addressed.
- Distribute the Code to all constituents, including parents and other caregivers, with a statement about the YSO’s commitment to maintaining a safe environment for the children and youth in its care.
- Integrate reading and signing the Code into the screening and hiring process for new employees and volunteers.
- All current staff and volunteers should be trained on the Code and sign the Statement of Receipt and Agreement. Include a copy of the statement in their personnel file.
- Integrate the Code into the performance appraisal process.
- Include the Code of Conduct in the YSO’s Policies and Procedures on the YSO’s website and in any marketing, recruitment, and advertising activity.
- Reinforce the Code of Conduct at staff meetings, during group and individual supervision, and other professional development opportunities.
- Ensure that once reported, all allegations are addressed in line with the organization’s protocol.
Step 3: Monitoring and Documenting the Code of Conduct
- Leadership presence in the workplace with an active role in observing and monitoring interactions among staff and between staff and children/youth is essential.
- Develop a monitoring plan that will help determine if and how the Code of Conduct is being implemented.
- Use the opportunity for positive reinforcement or constructive critique
- Help build a culture of awareness, keeping eyes open, mutual responsibility and dialogue
- Collect data on the types and frequency of reports, allegations, and complaints to help identify areas that need to be addressed or lack of clarity in the Code.
- Share the data with staff and volunteers, ask for feedback, and use the data to evaluate, revise, and update the Code periodically.