Regrets. I’ve had a few. But then again, it only takes one to resurface, completely unbidden, at the most inconvenient of times, to ruin your state-of-mind for the day.
In an era of purpose-driven brands, it’s worth taking a moment to understand (and document) your own. We write anthems, manifestos, values statements and the like for brands and teams all the time. Why not for yourself?
I’m here to advocate for an individual Code of Conduct — for the workplace, your career, your personal brand. Rather than waiting till you're in a situation and making a call under pressure (Do I speak up? Do I resign? Do I turn down that gig? Do I say yes to that request for help?), it's worth taking some time to think it through, write it down and revisit it from time to time.
It’s a technique that has absolutely worked for me* in other aspects of my life. Here are a few workplace scenarios to get you thinking about your own Code:
What’s your Code for: products and brands you won’t work on?
It used to be that tobacco was a bit ‘on the nose’ in advertising — but boy, did it pay well. I managed to avoid it for a while but, when finally cornered, I eventually quit**. Tobacco became such a universal deal breaker that today’s questionable products are described as ‘the new tobacco’. For some people, it’s gambling (or the more pleasant sounding ‘gaming’), or weapons systems, or organised religion, or right-wing media monopolies, or fast food targeted at kids or, well, there are plenty of deeply unhelpful products out there. Pick your poison.
If you’re really just in this game for the money, you can always play the “If it’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to advertise it” get-out-of-conscience-jail-free card**. If you believe your soul is worth saving, however, make yourself a Code. You don’t have to rule out a whole category: you can still work in beauty or fashion, for example, but draw the line at selling ‘whitening cream’ or clothes obviously produced by slave labour.
For me, it’s fossil fuels. Like a lot of parents, I’ve been dragged into consciousness by my kids. In particular, my youngest, who has become heavily involved in the climate action movement. If you want evidence the creative industry is waking up to the need to take responsibility on this issue (beyond branded keep cups), take a look at Comms Declare.
What’s your Code for: workplace behaviour you won’t accept?
Racism, sexism, ageism, queer-phobia, bullying. We hear those words and we imagine the most obvious and offensive examples of the breed. The reality, however, is that these behaviours are most prevalent in the workplace at the more subtle end of the scale, now commonly referred to as ‘micro aggressions’. Perpetrators of these behaviours are often acutely aware of how far they can go before they get called out — the more powerful the individual, the farther they can go without consequence. For the victims, it doesn’t matter. It all has an impact.
When you say you ‘won’t accept’ certain behaviour, have a think about how you might demonstrate that. Will you ignore it? Refuse to engage with the perpetrator? Quietly signal your disapproval to colleagues? A formal email to your managers? Or flip the table and storm out? If you’d like to think of yourself as an ally, think about what your allyship will look like — before you’re called on to demonstrate it.
Just a note here about power and privilege in the workplace: I absolutely recognise that it can cost some people a lot more to ‘say something’. If you’re in any sort of leadership role or in demand within the industry or an organisation, acknowledge you have the privilege of being able to exercise your Code. And maybe that privilege is also a responsibility. For those of us just starting out, a great reason to work on your career is so you can accumulate the seniority and power to exercise your Code as well.
What’s your Code for: keeping a confidence?
You tell yourself you are trustworthy but don’t deny how powerful information can be — you can almost always trade it for an advantage. It’s very flattering to be taken into someone’s confidence but, in a work scenario, you’re almost always being handed a potential asset — or becoming unwittingly embroiled in something in order to defray risk. It may take a while, but you usually come to a moment where the secret you’ve been told becomes an attractive story to tell.
Before waiting for the moment to spring itself upon you, should you set yourself a bar to clear? It can be a useful ‘brake tap’ to ask the person who’s unloading “Who do you want me to not tell anything about this to?” Their reaction to this straightforward request will tell you everything you need to know about the information you’re about to receive, and the responsibility attached to it.
What’s your Code for: holding a grudge?
I had a very generous client gift me a copy of Atlas of the Heart recently and it’s giving me a lot to think about in terms of how I recognise and manage my emotions at work. This is one area I may need to look at more closely but, for what it’s worth, my current Code on grudges runs like this: three and out. If you’ve done something to offend me once, I’ll let it slide. A second time, I’m going to point it out to you, before it gets awkward for both of us. A third time? By now I’ve reached the conclusion you mean to offend me, so I will help you out by being offended. And that’s where I’ll stay. My small but carved-in-stone list of Offensive People is where you’ll stay.
Do I really need my own Code of Conduct?
On the face of it, this seems like a non-topic. We all like to think we won’t work for evil companies or put up with toxic workplace behaviour. We see ourselves as good mentors and we swear we can keep a secret when asked. But do we? Every time? Or does it, y’know, depend on the situation?
Let me tell you from experience: we don’t always make the best choices in the moment. I can absolutely list the clients I wish I hadn’t taken money from, the workplace behaviour I should have called out and, the colleague’s confidences I’ve regretted trading.
Rather than wallowing in self-recrimination, I’m taking heart in Brené Brown’s take:
“I've found regret to be one of the most powerful emotional reminders that change and growth are necessary. In fact, I've come to believe that regret is a kind of package deal: A function of empathy, it's a call to courage and a path toward wisdom.”
A Code can be invaluable, which is why it ain’t free.
It’s easy to tell ourselves we’re not the problem here. It can be much harder to be part of the solution. Be aware that going beyond ‘thoughts and prayers’ and putting your Code into action is probably going to have ramifications: getting passed over, frozen out, blacklisted, demoted or, even fired.
Advertising gets a bad rap for being morally ambiguous, but it gave me some hope when I discovered the quote I needed to close out this post was written by a giant of our industry, Bill Bernbach:
“A principle isn't a principle until it costs you something.”
Write your own Code and at least you know your price list, ahead of time.
*How do I know this technique will work?
Let me take you back to the moment I learned about the power and confidence and calm you can get from taking the time to ‘think forward’. I’m sitting in a small, sunlit room with one other person.
“What do you want to get out of these sessions?”
“I want to know if the decision I’ve already made is just setting me up for trauma in the future.”
That’s me, talking to my therapist a couple of years ago as I was going through some difficult times (honestly, weren’t we all a couple of years ago?). The decision I was specifically worried about was already 5 years in the past and it was a big one, made in the heat of the moment but in response to circumstances that had been accumulating for a decade. I felt good about the decision when I made it. I felt good about the decision whilst talking to my therapist. But almost everyone (although there weren’t many in total) that I’d told my ‘big decision’ story had responded with a well-meaning variation of “Yes, but you’ll regret it later. Y’know, when they’re gone.”
Were they right? That’s the question I wanted my therapist to answer. To quell the nagging doubt in the back of my mind.
To help me answer the question (because therapists only ever lead you to your own answers), they got me to think about that moment. Not the moment I made the decision, but the moment when the consequences of that decision would become real. The inevitable moment. The one that’s coming for all of us.
“What are you planning to do at that moment?”
I realised I had honestly never thought about it. So I did. I worked out what I would be prepared to do and say, as well as the things I wouldn’t. It allowed me to visualise a place where I could still be human, without abandoning the values that had led to me taking that decision, or the people I sought to protect by doing so. It’s not going to be easy when that moment comes, but I also won’t be regretting myself.
** This story is a real ‘sliding doors’ moment and led directly to my long and mildly successful career in B2B Technology marketing. I’d be very happy to tell you the story for the price of one standard drink.
*** If you really believe what we do is not that significant, in the scheme of things, I’ve got a Twitter thread for you.
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