Codes of conduct are just about everywhere, routinely informing our behaviour at work, school, the baseball game and even the mall.
But the concept of regulating a family’s behaviour – from what’s okay to post on Instagram to what charity to support – might be less familiar. Still, once an enterprising family grows to include multiple generations and perhaps a public presence, a family code of conduct may not be far behind.
Codes of conduct, sometimes called “family protocols,” are often contained within a family constitution. They may govern how families interact with each other by outlining expected behaviour at family meetings. Or they may be outward-facing, codifying the behaviour and the image that families present publicly.
“At the end of the day, they are some form of normative agreement amongst family members,” says Mark Auger, CEO of Crysalia Inc. in Montreal.
“And essentially they list our behavioral and contractual principles or guidelines as to how we deal with one another as families, as family members, as owners and as business operators. And you might also preface a code of conduct with an expression of the family’s values.”
Think about why you might need a code
What are some of the values a family might embrace? The list is long, but a few examples are integrity, diversity, confidentiality, compassion, courtesy and professional competence.
As for the kind of behaviour that a code of conduct might seek to prevent, a public-facing code might govern communicating with the media and appropriate use of social media.
A set of protocols for family meetings, in addition, might help facilitate discussion by decreeing that only one family member may speak at a time.
Generally, good codes of conduct should have a clear and stated purpose, whether that’s helping onboard younger family members or simply directing behaviour at a family meeting. As Auger notes, it’s helpful to preface a set of rules with an expression of the family values that the code seeks to uphold. And it’s important to spell out consequences for breaking the code and guidelines and procedures for dealing with those situations.
‘Everything is values-based’
Neil Nisker, co-founder, executive chairman and chief investment officer of Our Family Office Inc. in Toronto, says he commonly sees codes of conduct contained within a family constitution and confirms that sometimes they are very specific.
“They can be moral or ethical standards. Or there may be specific expectations saying, ‘You must demonstrate this sort of behavior.’ We could be talking about proper public behaviour, confidentiality or even dress codes, but it is more often referring to codes of ethics.”
“It goes back to your values,” says Nisker. “Everything is values-based.”
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Codes of conduct are most effective when they encourage good behaviour by promoting the family vision and values, Nisker says, but he notes that some go as far as outlining expectations for a family member’s conduct on social media, which he says may not be a bad thing.
“When we look at risk management, people think about insurance,” says Nisker. “But one of the most important risks that people don’t spend any time on is reputational risk.”
Mindy Mayman, partner at Richter Family Office in Montreal, agrees.
“Sometimes they codify expectations around your public persona,” she says. “In this day and age, it could be around your use of social media, your Instagram or Facebook profiles, as an example.
“So your family charter and values might say that ‘We, as part of this family, will portray an image of respect, or conservatism,’ or whatever the family values,” says Mayman. In other words, if it’s not respectful or conservative, it stays on the camera roll and off social media.
Issues of physical safety
Codes of conduct can be viewed through a safety lens, too, she says.
“It could also be about protecting the family. … Some very public families even get training around physical security, because they could be targets for situations like kidnapping or extortion, or things of that nature. Depending on the nature of the family, all of that could come under the purview of the constitution or code of conduct.”
Does a code of conduct really work to promote a family’s values and discourage unwanted behaviour?
Mark Auger agrees with Nisker about codes of conduct doing their best work when they’re used to promote family values and encourage positive behaviour. When codes include specific rules, family buy-in is key. “They are a good idea as long as the parties that are bound by the code had a voice in building it,” says Auger.
The real point of codes of conduct – as with family councils – is to nurture and facilitate positive relationships, both within the family and between the family and the outside world, Auger notes. “All of this is tied fundamentally to human behavior,” he says.
“It is really about stewarding the human and social capital of the enterprising family. So when you think of human capital, you see that these are issues that are related to you and your interactions with others and the quality of the relationships that you’re able to develop over time.”