There are three building blocks that are fundamental to every effective health and wellbeing initiative. These are the moral, the legal and the financial. They fit together in a pyramid hierarchy and you can use them to build a better employee wellbeing strategy. If you can’t immediately identify these three blocks in your current strategy, you need to rebuild from the ground up now.

In this first article of a three-part series we show you how to lay the moral foundations of a health and wellbeing strategy by creating a meaningful company code of conduct. Here’s the content our article will cover.

A model for corporate health and wellbeing

Think about your health and wellbeing strategy and visualise the pyramid below. It’s made of three sections. Each section is built upon the one below in a hierarchy. You can’t have the top without the bottom and the middle. The relative sizes of each layer show the relative importance each one should occupy in your mind.

Health and Wellbeing Strategy Pyramid - Moral, Financial, Legal

Build a better health and wellbeing strategy using the 3-step pyramid – 1. Moral, 2. Legal, 3. Financial

We use visual models like this a lot in our work. They reduce complexity to provide insight and offer a simple framework to organise information in your mind. This means we can focus in on what’s important. And today my friend that is your health and wellbeing strategy.

Models are superb for communication too. Nobody enjoys sitting through an information dump — an endless list of one thing after another. People will switch off if you just dump information on them.

Instead, use imagery and models to engage your audience. That way you can motivate and inspire when you communicate. Your audience will be more receptive and more likely to feed back. Formulating a company-wide strategy for health and wellbeing is a collaborative process and you need everybody on board.

So let’s use our pyramid model to examine the three fundamental building blocks of any corporate health and wellbeing programme worth its salt. Our pyramid model will focus your mind on the fundamentals and you will craft a better wellbeing strategy for your organisation as a result.

In this first article we will show you how to build a solid moral foundation.

Laying the moral foundations

Getting started with health and wellbeing in your organisation? Your first priority is to establish a firm moral foundation. The bottom layer of our model is the moral foundation upon which everything else is built.

Don’t worry about the layers above. We’ll cover those in articles 2 and 3. For now it’s all about the base.

Your organisation’s moral base is the most important part of your health and wellbeing strategy. Get this wrong and the whole thing will come tumbling down.

A Moral Code of Conduct is the base of your health and wellbeing pyramid

Create a company code of conduct to lay firm moral foundations for your health and wellbeing strategy

What do we mean by ‘moral’?

But what exactly do we mean by ‘moral’ in terms of a health and wellbeing strategy for business?

Simply put, morals are the principles that guide human conduct. They are what every one of us uses to distinguish right from wrong.

We all have our own ideas about what is right or wrong, and these vary according to the person and the situation. Observations of babies have proved that some of this is innate. Here’s a five-minute news clip from CNN reporting on results from the Yale ‘baby lab’ where six-month old babies appear to be capable of distinguishing right from wrong.


We’ve looked at babies, but what about adults? Some our morality is innate, but it is mainly shaped by our social circumstances. That’s the society we live in, our family values, peer pressure and work culture.

Calibrating your moral compass

Let’s start with a simple question so you can get your moral bearings.

Would you consider it wrong to send somebody to do a job that could kill them?

It’s a simple question but it doesn’t mean the answer is easy. For me, instinctively it seems morally wrong to do that. Sending people to work to die just doesn’t feel right, does it?

Although, I am aware right now you may be thinking, ‘What about soldiers who go to work? Or what about people working in dangerous circumstances, like the emergency services?’

In the UK, at the moment, some in the National Health Service (NHS) are putting their lives on the line to care for the critically ill during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s nuanced. We cannot paint morality in broad strokes of black and white. Moral decisions depend on context and perspective, notions of risk versus reward, and changing societal norms. Consider diverse viewpoints of the same circumstances and you will find many shades of grey.

So, understandably, there is often debate about moral questions. Different cultures, societies and businesses all have different ideas about what is morally right or wrong.

What you need to agree on with your colleagues is what is morally right for you and your business. You can only do that by taking time to explore some moral issues. You will then have the confidence you need to build the moral case for health and wellbeing that is stronger than the legal and financial imperatives.

Care homes as the new coal mines

If you are old enough, cast your mind back to workplaces of the 1970s and 1980s. Remember how work used to be before the internet and emails? Many behaviours that were accepted back then just don’t seem right now.

Take the case of my neighbour. He lives a life full of the consequences of 1980’s workplace morality.

We live in Selby, Yorkshire, which used to be home to the biggest coal mine in Europe. The mine employed thousands of local people who worked underground all day, digging coal.

As a result my neighbour wheezes when he walks. He can barely breathe because of emphysema, from years of breathing in the clouds of coal dust that engulfed him in his workplace.

Do you consider it morally right that he should have been exposed to this risk at the time? Do you think his employer considered his health and wellbeing at work from a moral perspective? Do you think it’s morally right that his health should have been impacted to the extent that thirty years later he can barely breathe?

And if you are thinking what relevance this has to the 2020 workplace, consider this viewpoint:

COVID-19 is coal dust and care homes are coal mines.

Is this taking it too far? Leave a comment about what you think, or just let me know your thoughts on workplace morality.

Morals are not fixed across time or place

Morals are not fixed. They change over time. It’s staggering to think that many societies deemed it morally acceptable as recently as the 1980’s and 1990’s to discriminate against others based on their skin colour, ethnicity, or sexuality. The UK government passed legislation to prohibit the promotion of homosexuality in 1988. Apartheid in South Africa only ended at the start of the 1990s. And some countries still discriminate, even in 2020.

Regardless of prevailing legislation and entrenched attitudes, there are always progressive individuals making moral arguments for societal change. As a business leader, you need to be progressive and remain aware of the moral arguments. Revise your opinion regularly and keep abreast of societal changes. You don’t want to end up on the wrong side of history.

For a final workplace morality tale, watch the New York Times and PBS documentary ‘The Men of Atalissa’. It’s a moving account of one company’s treatment of its learning disabled workers. An example of how morally wrong a business can be in the 2000s.

Looking back at the 1980’s, 1990’s and the 2000’s is all well and good, but we would hope that businesses now act in much more moral ways. Or do they?

Take, for example, the recent case of the Irish budget airline Ryanair and its boss Michael O’Leary. The airline industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus epidemic. In May 2020 O’Leary spoke to BBC news about his plans for getting flights off the ground again before government guidelines for safety had been put in place.

He made lots of creative suggestions for how he was planning to relaunch his business. Face masks, hand sanitiser, and even taking passenger temperatures before they boarded a plane. If their temperature was too high they would be sent back home. It was straightforward, he said.

But the creativity of his business brain was pushing his ideas too fast in the direction of the amoral. Someone in his organisation needed to apply the brakes. He didn’t appear to have the health and wellbeing of the passengers or his staff at the forefront of his mind. With COVID-19 it really is a matter of life and death.

What O’Leary was proposing may have been within the letter of the law, but it certainly wasn’t within its spirit. And it was definitely not an argument made from a moral standpoint.

Morals as a safety net for questionable legal behaviour

It’s very important that you consider your company’s moral foundations as a safety net for questionable legal behaviour. Many actions may well be legal but they should not be considered right.

Let me know what in the comments what you think of Ryanair’s approach. And please give any other examples of companies you think have strayed from moral conduct, even if they are obeying the letter (if not the spirit) of the law.

In their book Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, authors Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and William Damon suggest everyone regularly review three Ms to make sure they are on the right moral track. The Ms are:

  1. What is the mission that underpins your work?
  2. Who are the role models you admire and emulate and why?
  3. When you look at yourself in the mirror at work are you proud of what you see? If everybody in your profession were like you, would you want to live in a society like that?

Can you answer all three? If not, don’t worry because we are going to look at number 1 now: creating an effective company code of conduct that will outline your mission. Then we will look at models and mirrors to ensure this code is effectively matched by your organisational culture.

Creating a company code of conduct

Once you have a sound understanding of workplace morality in general, you will need to create guidelines for the employees in your organisation. These guidelines act as everyone’s moral compass that points in the direction of ‘right’ and away from ‘wrong’.

These guidelines are typically embedded in a company ‘code of conduct’ or ‘code of ethics’. Creation of this document should be a collaborative effort involving stakeholders from all levels of your organisation. That way everyone will be able to influence your moral code, and understand the importance of having one.

What needs to go in a code of conduct?

Google’s code of conduct was famously ‘don’t be evil’. It was to the point, but left a lot of room for interpretation. You need to strike a balance between this kind of memorable simplicity and the necessary detail which will reduce ambiguity.

For an example of the kind of detail you might aspire to, look at the code of conduct of a company we’ve just finished working with — Guidewire Software. Like Google, Guidewire is headquartered in Silicon Valley, California, and is a global software company. Delphis recently developed and delivered a global mental wellbeing programme for Guidewire called ‘Coping with COVID’.

Guidewire was very clear from the outset that its mental health and wellbeing interventions were being made for moral purposes. It cared about its people.

Guidewire’s code of conduct on its website is part of its investor relations communications. It’s outward facing, but Guidewire also makes sure that every employee signs up to this code of conduct on joining the organisation.

I’ve reproduced Section 6 of Guidewire’s code of conduct below, which aims to ‘promote a positive work environment‘. It is not only an attempt to foster a particular company culture of morality, but it also acts as a reference point for the future that all employees have agreed upon.

The Company is committed to creating a supportive work environment and each employee is expected to create a respectful workplace culture that is free of harassment, intimidation, bias and unlawful discrimination. The Company is an equal opportunity employer and employment is based solely on individual merit and qualifications directly related to professional competence. The Company strictly prohibits discrimination or harassment of any kind on the basis of race, color, religion, veteran status, national origin, ancestry, pregnancy status, sex, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, mental or physical disability, medical condition, sexual orientation or any other characteristics protected by law.

Note that in terms of disability we should not only think about learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities but also mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). These are all considered disabilities (in the UK) if they are long-standing and affect someone’s ability to do day-to-day activities.

Morally, can we agree that the right thing to do is not to discriminate against people with disabilities?

However, you and your colleagues may not be aware of the mental health conditions that are considered disabilities and the extent to which they can impact people’s lives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. So it’s vitally important to raise awareness of mental health in the workplace, in conjunction with efforts to create a code of conduct that is positive about mental health and wellbeing.

Four stellar code of conduct examples

Let’s take a look at four excellent codes of conduct. Read through them and then take the best elements of each as inspiration for your company’s own moral code.

Let’s start with Toyota’s. The first page of their code is a summary which is simple and to the point. If you can’t summarise your code of conduct into one piece of A4 like this, you need to keep clarifying. The detail will follow.

Note Toyota’s use of the phrase:

Honour the language and spirit of the law

We talked about the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law earlier when we looked at Ryanair’s response to COVID-19. You have to admire Toyota’s effort to honour both in its code of conduct.

GE has also embodied this sentiment in the title of its code of ethics, ‘The Spirit and the Letter‘. The code elegantly sets out how it expects all stakeholders to behave. These stakeholders not only include company leaders and employees but also third parties such as contractors, agents and distributors. It’s a visually appealing document that also contains sections tailored to each stakeholder’s moral perspective.

IBM’sBusiness Conduct Guidelines‘ is also very well presented and contains a number of ‘integrity tips’ that act as reminders to employees if they are ever tempted into morally questionable behaviour. Here are some of the questions it asks employees to consider before they take action or make a decision:

— Is it honest?

— Does it conform to the Business Conduct Guidelines?

— Do I really feel comfortable with this decision?

— What if this appeared in the news?

— What if everyone were to behave like this?

Nokia’s code of conduct uses a decision-making model that embodies the questions IBM wants its employees to ask themselves. It also visualises a ‘circle of responsibility’ between employees, leaders and legal and compliance teams reproduced below. Everybody is encouraged to play their part.

Nokia Code of Conduct Circle of Responsibility


Nokia has also created a code of conduct app available for iOS and Android so that employees can have the code of conduct with them at all times. This is a great idea if your budget allows for development of an app.

Culture eats a code of conduct for breakfast

If you consider your code of conduct as the moral mission you want to underpin your organisation’s actions, we now need to turn to its role models and its mirrors. This is where culture comes off the bench and into play.

Codes of conduct might well be how organisations would like their employees to act and how they would like to be viewed. But in reality it is organisational culture that reflects and influences the way people behave.

Culture is best expressed as:

The way people do things around here.

So don’t ever lose sight of the fact that what is written down in your code of conduct needs to be reflected in the everyday actions, practices, behaviours and language in the workplace. If it’s not, you need to work on changing workplace culture. This is where role model and mirrors come in.

When we were working with the good people from Guidewire it was evident that their code of conduct was firmly embedded within their culture. I was an outsider, but they welcomed me as part of the team.

Sometimes when we go into organisations as outsiders we can be treated with suspicion. And once or twice even in a morally questionable way.

But I felt part of the Guidewire family for the month we were working with them. It’s not surprising that Guidewire won Glassdoor’s ‘Employees’ Choice Award for the Best Place to Work’ in 2018 for the third time in four years. We helped them build a mental wellbeing programme on top of already solid moral foundations.

Sometimes, however, despite codes of conduct good people can do bad things. And there is no shortage of recent business examples. From accounting fraud at Enron, through the mis-selling of Payment Protection Insurance (PPI), to the emissions scandal at Volkswagen, the pursuit of profits or personal gain can cause people to behave in immoral ways.

So make sure ethical behaviour is role modelled in your organisation from the top all the way down. Celebrate and reward ethical behaviours. Weave morals into the daily fabric of company life.

If you are going to hold up a moral mirror to see if people like what they see, don’t just do it metaphorically. Why not engrave reminders on the washroom mirrors? That way everyone will be reminded multiple times a day that morality matters.

Whatever you do, make sure the creation of a company code of conduct is just the beginning of your workplace morality journey, not its destination.

If you want to read more on morals and building a company with firm moral foundations check out Muel Kaptein’s excellent book, Workplace Morality: Behavioural Ethics in Organisations.

Legal and financial next

In the next article in this series, we will look at the legal frameworks which sit upon these moral foundations when you’re building your health and wellbeing strategy. Remember, your moral foundation is the safety net for what might be legal but is still morally questionable behaviour.

In our final article we look at the icing on your pyramid cake: the financials. Financial benefits should be born out of moral and legal behaviours. If you approach health and wellbeing from a financial perspective first you turn the pyramid upside down. Your strategy will be built on a very unsteady base because employees will be rightly suspicious of health and wellbeing initiatives driven first and foremost by the prospect of financial gains.

A health and wellbeing strategy built on moral foundations stands the greatest chance of long-term success. It will be much more likely to be accepted by people in your organisation because it is built upon a respect for human values rather than seen as a box ticking exercise to get them to do more work.

If you’ve found this article useful leave a comment or drop me a line. I’d love to see your code of conduct examples.