The Code of Conduct Conundrum

As the tech community draws greater (and very much needed) attention to the serious issue of discrimination and harassment, a common thread emerges. When deciding which community events to attend, many individuals want to see a policy front and center that tells attendees what constitutes unacceptable behavior, what to do if that kind of behavior is witnessed, and what the consequences are for those exhibiting that behavior. The policy alone is not enough. Everyone knows this. The conversation seems to pop up in force every few weeks as if it has never been discussed before. It has. And it all comes down to safety.

Creating a safe environment requires the preparation to stop an incident from happening, and a clear response to manage the situation if an incident does occur. It doesn’t matter if this is at a large conference, a small networking event, or even in an online space supporting a community. Your community is going to perform a risk assessment. An individual will risk engaging with a community knowing that something unsafe may happen, but the risk can be mitigated by the way the community leaders prepare for and react to a threat. When someone assesses the level of risk when evaluating their conference choices, one of the things they might look for is a documented policy like a Code of Conduct.

Your event needs a Code of Conduct.

There is a fairly good chance that every conference has rules in place that help the staff take action against attendees who are acting unprofessionally. These rules may not be publicized or posted. They may be brief, non-committal suggestions via e-mail. They may be multi-page documents that go into great detail about what to do and how to do it. They might be simple abstracts backed up by a more in-depth policy-related process behind the scenes. They may even simply be policies of the physical venue that the event organizers use as a guide.

It makes sense that a group of organizers, presumably working to create the most successful event possible, would at least have some conversation about what to do if something goes wrong. “If a complaint is lodged against a speaker, another organizer, or an attendee, what do we do?” Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Take these policies, these procedures, these expectations, and put them together in one document. What do you get? A Code of Conduct. Whether your organization decides to call your policy “Code of Conduct” is a marketing decision. Call it whatever you want, and then display it. There is something to be said for standards though, and “Code of Conduct” is a fairly wide reaching standard term used across multiple industries to cover this very topic.

As has been said many times, having a Code of Conduct in place is not enough. The document itself, without action behind it, is just a series of words. Like all sets of rules, Codes of Conduct need to be enforced to be useful.

Enforcement is the break test of every policy.

An event could have the most comprehensive Code of Conduct ever written, but this is no guarantee of safety. The event could have a proven track record of safety across multiple years of successful conferences; this also does not guarantee safety.

Codes of Conduct do not guarantee safety. This is absolutely true. No policy guarantees safety on its own. As an attendee, you cannot assume that an event that has a document like this on its website or posted in its halls means that nothing bad will happen. It is what the event staff does with their policy that will show their commitment to attendee safety.

A conference with a Code of Conduct that is not enforced will inevitably have its reputation ruined by not appropriately addressing every complaint. This is the fault of the people behind the event, not of the document itself. This is the same result whether you have a posted Code, some other policy, or no policy at all. The bottom line is that if you do not take care of your attendees and speakers, they will not return to your conference.

Will having a set of rules posted and available mean that fewer incidents will occur? Possibly. Possibly not. It depends on the community and how seriously they view your policies. It depends on the organizers and their commitment to the Code. It is a change in attitude and mentality that will take time to permeate through the community. If organizers hold people accountable for breaking the rules, and they are consistent with their messaging, the behaviors of the community will evolve in a direction of respect.

For example:

A presenter who reads a Code of Conduct and understands the consequences of not following the Code, may reevaluate their talk, and decide not to include an off color joke in their presentation. This makes the talk more respectful. This is a positive result. This is the Code setting expectations and asking attendees to adhere to those expectations. This is one of the functions the Code serves.

Another example:

A person either doesn’t read the Code of Conduct, or doesn’t care what it says, and they make an inappropriate comment to another attendee. Using the Code of Conduct as a guideline, the attendee on the receiving end of this comment reports the person to the staff organizers, who take action based on the severity of the issue. That the person made an inappropriate comment at all, means the event is unwelcoming and potentially unsafe. But the response from the staff levels out the gap in safety with the support structure inherent in the working Code of Conduct.

Enforcement is hard. That fact must be respected.

While it may be relatively easy to remove someone from your conference, and to threaten police involvement if they return, it may not be as easy to manage the fallout from that action.

Someone who harasses other people will do anything in their power to explain why what they did was blown out of proportion or try to discredit the source of the complaint. Especially if their actions have a larger consequence or if everything becomes public. They can rally friends or like-minded people to their cause, they can and will lie about the circumstances and claim it was all a misunderstanding or overreaction, they can continue the harassment long after the event is over (thanks to social media), and worst of all, even if they are banned from one event, they can continue attending other events in the industry.

Unless your conference is part of a larger group of associated events, it is almost impossible to keep a person like this away from conferences in general. This is why we need to recognize that safety is never guaranteed and the best we can do is set the expectations and respond accordingly. As more conferences adopt these policies, and more cases of harassment or discrimination are dealt with in the right way, then over time we will see fewer incidents. Fewer incidents mean that people feel safer. The more that people feel safe, the more likely they are to go to your conference.

So what is the right way to deal with these situations? Listen to the complaint and take notes. Be sensitive to the victim, because bringing something like this to someone’s attention is difficult. Interview witnesses and collect information while maintaining confidentiality. Consult with a professional or your fellow organizers to decide the next step. If it appears that the rules were broken, then follow the process established in the Code of Conduct to hold the person accountable. If you and your team decide the rules were not broken, then it is your responsibility to explain to the victim how you came to your decision. These situations need to be handled by individuals trained to deal with challenging interpersonal conflicts. Surround yourself with these people. It’s your conference, and ultimately you own this outcome for better or worse.

Something very important to remember: Don’t retaliate against the victim simply because they’ve registered a complaint. You can’t be upset that you now have to deal with this situation. You can’t force the victim to go out of their way to accommodate the person who has harassed them. You can’t try to push a reconciliation between the two parties. And it isn’t your responsibility to make the situation public.

Trust: Hard to build, Easy to lose.

A suggestion to event planners who want to put a Code of Conduct in place: Don’t do it unless there is an enforcement plan.

When we see a Code of Conduct the understanding is that those rules will be enforced. In our minds, saying “Code of Conduct” is the same as saying “Enforced Code of Conduct.” If you have that policy in place, and you do not enforce it, then you put your entire organization at risk.

If you are a new conference, then you run the risk of ruining your credibility if things go wrong and you don’t have an appropriate response. Your ability to hold a successful conference in the future is damaged. Holding people accountable for their behavior in a public setting isn’t a new thing. There are plenty of resources for advice on how to handle these things. It is challenging though. If you don’t feel like your staff is up to the challenge of having to possible warn or eject a person from your conference, then you need to work with security at the event or venue to set your expectations and ask for their help.

Things can go wrong even if you are an established conference with a good track record. If anything you will be held to a higher standard than a newer conference. A newer event might be forgiven for some growing pains. But as an established conference it can be easy to lose that trust. No one will care about the fifteen times you did the right thing before the one time you did something wrong.

Asking attendees to trust the event staff to do the right thing is not a solution; at least not at first. What about someone who is new to your conference? What about someone who is going there to make their first connections in the industry your cover? The conference needs to earn the right to be trusted.

If you are a newer conference without a proven track record or if you’re a longer standing conference who has had some issues, a Code of Conduct is a great way to set the stage for that trust. It shows your attendees that you understand the issues, you’ve mitigated as much risk as possible, and you have a plan to address the issues if they happen. Enforcement of the Code is part of that. Develop your response in tandem with developing the actual wording of the policy.

If a conference doesn’t have a clear policy to point to then there are other types of risk that come up. Without a clear policy, attendees may not feel comfortable about speaking up. Without a clear policy, a harasser could plead ignorance of what constitutes proper professional behavior in that specific space. Without a clear policy, anyone who is sent away from the event could claim discrimination for any number of reasons. Without a clear policy, an event staffer could eject someone for discriminatory reasons.

The bottom line is that a conference needs to give its attendees a reason to trust them. And even once that trust is in place, it can’t be taken for granted. The policies you present to your attendees, and the rest of the community, will offer the desirable atmosphere many within the community are looking for.

Design to Standards.

Recognizing that your policies could be called pretty much anything and still be exactly what people are looking for, why should your event have a document called “Code of Conduct”?

Industry standards help everyone in the industry

· Standard Code of Conduct language creates familiar expectations within the community.

· This is good not only for those concerned for their own safety, but also for those who can recognize that their own behavior might be questionable.

· It removes gray areas of acceptable conduct that might differ depending on the demographics of different conferences.

· It can also create an environment where someone who violated the Code severely at one conference could be barred from other conferences that employ a similar Code.

Violation of a standard Code of Conduct should yield standard consequences

· That a complaint in violation of the Code yields results is critical.

· The results may vary depending on your capacity to address these issues and the severity of the complaint, but there must be a result.

· Right now the status quo is a climate where complaints go unanswered. People feel it is better to say nothing.

· Because the complaint goes unsaid or unanswered, the complaint is sometimes lodged via social media. This is damaging to: the person bringing up the issue, because of rampant counter-harassment, plus distance from the incident makes details hazy for witnesses; the person who the complaint was against, who now does not have the benefit of an investigation to discover potential nuances in the situation; and your conference, which gains a reputation for having no clear, fair, or comfortable way to address these issues. This can be one of the most harmful scenarios in a community where rules are either non-existent or go unenforced. Again — you ultimately own the outcome.

Standard Code of Conduct language makes good business sense

· Enough people are starting to want to see your policies ahead of time that to not include them will cause your attendance to drop.

· People from diverse groups may already be avoiding your conference because of a lack of a Code of Conduct and you don’t even know it .

· There are probably more people who want to see a Code of Conduct, or people who don’t care either way, than there are people who are patently against having a Code of Conduct.

Standard Code of Conduct language is not just prohibitive

· An effective Code of Conduct isn’t only there to prohibit bad behavior. It does not only have to be an anti-harassment policy.

· A code of conduct can also be the organizer’s chance to share their mission for the event and set the tone for the conference.

· It can communicate a standard of respect for attendees, presenters, staff members, venue employees, and the venue itself.

· Many Codes of Conduct are firstly about respect. Respect for the community and respect for the profession. The Anti-Harassment policy is often a separate piece attached to the Code.

The tech conference world is a long way from standardizing something like this, but if we look at the bigger picture, and compare the Codes of the companies we work for, they would most likely all look very similar.

Feeling safe and being safe are both important.

At the end of the day (and this article) all actions around attendee safety are steps toward a culture where we have policies in place that we hope never need to be acted on. Building safety into the design of the conference is one step. Setting up a concise, transparent and enforced Code of Conduct (or applicable policy) is another step.

Everyone seems to want the same thing: Tell your attendees that they will be safe, show them how you plan to keep them safe, and then act appropriately if something happens. In the context of a conference, feeling safe and being safe are both important. This is because it isn’t just a design problem: it’s a human problem. Emotions are involved. Making attendees feel safe gets them in the door, and how the staff sees to their needs if things become unsafe is what keeps them in the room.

Bill Manning is a Human Resources professional and writer. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his employer.