Publishing a Code of Conduct isn’t enough

A black dog sits outside on a blue bed. Her golden eyes are looking directly at the camera. She wears a rainbow kerchief around her neck, with the words "I bark at bigots" emblazoned on it
Elphie wearing her “I bark at bigots” pawkerchief

I’ve seen more and more events & communities adopt Codes of Conduct. Even local events, local user groups, and smaller online communities are adopting Codes of Conduct. That’s GREAT! …but it’s just a great start. It’s not that easy.

Discoverability

The issue of discoverability is common, but easy to fix. Let’s look at a specific scenario. An event publishes a Code of Conduct, and has attendees agree to it when they sign up to attend. That’s all great. But during the event someone experiences, witnesses, or hears about behavior that sounds like a Code of Conduct violation. They didn’t think it would happen to them–even though they read & agreed to the Code of Conduct, they don’t have it memorized and need to go find it. Where do they find it?

For in-person events, including a copy of the Code of Conduct, or a URL in attendee bags or on name badges can solve that. For all events/communities the Code of Conduct should be posted online, and be easy to find. Put a link in the website menu, on an FAQ page, on the website header/footer/sidebar. Check if you can find it by Googling the name of the event/community and term Code of Conduct. If you can’t find it quickly, neither will victims. Harassment & abuse can result in the victim being in crisis. When folks are in crisis, finding help should be easy–this is why emergency numbers like 911, 112, 000 exist.

Your Code of Conduct should easy to find, even in an emergency or crisis when you are panicked and might not be thinking totally clearly. Remember, you’re hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.

Reporting & Enforcement

THESE is the biggest gaps I see in real-life codes of conduct. Once a victim in crisis finds the Code of Conduct, where do they go next?

If you don’t have reporting & enforcement figured out, your Code of Conduct is WORTHLESS. I’m not sure what is worse:

  • An event/community without a code of conduct; or
  • An event/community with a code of conduct, but nothing in place for reporting & enforcement.

I say this because the latter is like a bait-and-switch. You have one, and at first glance it makes sense. But if it doesn’t explicitly set out where a victim in crisis may turn for help, then you simply aren’t helping anyone. The victim will feel like they are at a dead end, at the time they need it most. Whether the reporting mechanism is an email, a phone number, or something else–keep in mind confidentiality for the victim, the accused, and witnesses.

Enforcement & outcomes should also be included in your Code of Conduct. This helps both the victim, the accused, and the event/community organizer to have clear expectations, and minimize the chance that anyone perceives that actions & decisions are “arbitrary.” Clear guidelines also provide some guardrails to protect against unconscious bias–this is similar to the prior point about being arbitrary, with a goal of equitable enforcement.

Understanding and/or training

When a violation occurs and is reported, it’s important that the folks who are being contacted about or responding to the incident understand how to handle these situations. Compassionate, honest responses are important. Communication skills are important. These are really difficult interpersonal issues, and while smaller events & communities can’t realistically have highly-trained staff to respond, that doesn’t mean it can be ignored. Local events and user groups involve dozens or hundreds of hours to execute well. Dedicating a portion of that time to make sure your event/community handles things well is quite realistic.

Welcoming and Belonging

Codes of Conduct directly hit on Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging of the DEIB acronym (the remaining D stands for Diversity). The role in equity & inclusion gets a lot of airtime. Lets talk about the Belonging part…

Belonging is something that your attendees/community members feel when they are a part of a welcoming community. As an organizer, making people feel welcome & like they belong in your community/event is not just important to your members/attendees, it’s important to you. It’s key to your continued success. You want to attract and retain members/attendees. If you have high churn, where folks don’t stay or don’t come back, one reason for that might be that your community/event was not welcoming and the person didn’t feel like they belonged there.

A Code of Conduct reflects how thoughtful an event/community is, and how much are they looking out for minorities & victims. You can tell the difference between a quick copy/paste, or if they spent time & effort to customize it & make it comprehensive & effective for their use case.

Your effort and investment in your Code of Conduct telegraphs your overall approach to DEIB. When I see a thoughtless Code of Conduct, it riles my feathers because it betrays a weakness of the event/community. It raises more questions than it answers. I start to ask questions like:

  • Are they serious about making me feel safe at the event?
  • Is this Code of Conduct just to tick a compliance box?
  • Do they not understand the importance of their Code of Conduct?
  • If they didn’t spend more than a few minutes on their Code of Conduct, can I rely on it?

A “wrong” answer on any of those questions is really bad news for victims, and makes the event unwelcoming.
Regardless of the reasons behind those “wrong” answers–whether it’s malice, indifference, or ignorance–It’s still a major problem for victims & individuals worried about being victimized or discriminated against.

Humans need to be priority

As a queer person, I’m a target for discrimination & abuse.

One major aspect of my own physical & psychological safety is having confidence in the safety net of the Code of Conduct–to know that WHEN something happens, I know who to contact and what to expect from my report. I need to know that organizers are looking out for me, and want to protect my physical and psychological safety. I need to know that organizers care about the humans in their community as much as they care about the topics being discussed and the events being planned.

If you are an event/community organizer, revisit your Code of Conduct, and check to see if you’re really giving it the time it deserves, or are you ticking a box? What will happen when an incident occurs? Is it really comprehensive?

If you are a speaker/sponsor/attendee, are you supporting events and communities that are putting in the effort to build a welcoming & inclusive space? Can you contact them to encourage them to better prioritize the safety of everyone?

Tough love

If you aren’t up to creating a proper Code of Conduct for your tech event or online community, complete with proper attention to reporting & enforcement, that’s a HUGE problem.
It’s disingenuous for even small, all-volunteer events to say “I can’t do it.” What you are really saying is that it simply isn’t a priority for you–and if you can’t prioritize the humans who make up your event/community, I would suggest you get out of event/community organizing.

I firmly believe that an event/community that can’t manage having a Code of Conduct with clear processes for reporting & enforcement, and proper understanding/processes for handling violations…. then that event/community shouldn’t exist.

A good Code of Conduct can’t fix everything. It’s not a magic switch that can suddenly make an event welcoming & inclusive. But it’s a necessary part of the foundation to do that.


Additional Reading

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for being a person who speaks out about this topic Andy.

    Thank you for the advice that you give and for pointing out when I can do better.

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