Why We had a Code of Conduct 


Last week was Rustbelt Refresh, which is a web design conference I co-organize with Bridget Stewart and Brad Dielman. Several people noticed something new this year: a code of conduct. A couple asked: “Why are you doing this, did you have problems last year?” The short answer is no, but we’ve been organizing local web events for years.

Early on we did all this through Meetup.com but later on we formed the Cleveland Web Standards Association or CWSA. And with any free local meet up, sometimes a jerk shows up. It happens.

There was the one guy, we’ll call him Mike. Wait, we can’t call him Mike, that’s his real name. Lets call him Ted.

Ted liked to show up at the meetings and tell us how much better Dreamweaver was than Joomla. This guy complained about everything!

Our monthly meetings were usually held off site at local offices that companies were generous enough to lend us. Companies like LeanDog or Progressive Insurance. These were cool locations. Some of them like LeanDog were easy to find because LeanDog is located on a boat. It’s not hard to find a boat. Progressive, on the other hand, is a campus. It’s not hard to find the campus, but sometimes it’s hard to find the building you’re looking for on the campus. We would tell people to just find the largest building at the end of the parking lot and in there you’ll find someone who can escort you where you need to go. You had to put on their little security badges anyway.

Ted felt that our description of how to get to the meeting on the Progressive campus was a little vague. Fair criticism. The problem is that he called Bridget, one of the organizers, and really laid into her. Bad Move Ted, bad move. He didn’t call me or Brad Dielman, but he did start calling random attendees. All of the attendees he called were women. The people he was calling and yelling at weren’t people listed on our site. He was going out of his way to find the female attendees and yell at them about our directions.

We found out about this from our friends who were called and were like “What is up with this Ted guy?” Who knows how many people Ted called that we never heard about because they were too freaked out to ever come back.

We had no idea what to do or how to deal with this guy. We were just lucky that he never came back.

As we were organizing Rustbelt Refresh this year, one of our speakers, Rachel Nabors, suggested we look into a code of conduct for the conference. There’s a lot of details that go into planning an event and this wasn’t one that we had put a lot of thought into. After looking at some of the things other conferences have done. we realized it made a lot of sense.

Most of these polices have two parts. The part that you the attendee sees that tell you not to be a jerk and the part we see that tells us how we should deal with the Teds of the world. I kinda wish we had something like this when we were dealing with Ted.

Here is what we liked about the code of conduct:

1. It made us, the organizers, more transparent to the people attending the conference. The CWSA website didn’t have our names or contact information on the website. We also weren’t wearing badges or anything that identified us as organizers. We’re lucky that in Cleveland we have a small tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody else and you can kinda figure out who the organizers are. A conference like Rustbelt is a completely different animal. There are people coming into town from all over the place who didn’t know who we were or how we could help them. And not just people they could talk to about harassment, but people they could talk to if the coffee was bad or something was wrong with the sound or any other problem they had.

2. It gave us a clear plan on how to deal with the Teds. On the day of your event, there are a million things going on. You have a schedule and a lot that has to happen. You don’t have time to stop and react. How Bridget, Brad and I usually work is we group up, discuss the problem, and usually come to a consensus before taking action. The day of the conference there isn’t time to do that. Having the policy in place was one less thing we had to worry about. It was just good planning.

3. It’s a good vibe. I was surprised how many people noticed we had posted it in our footer. We didn’t call it out or use it as marketing, but a lot of people noticed it was there and approved. We also had more women at the conference this year. Of course, correlation does not prove causation but it was still nice to see.

But Brad, aren’t you worried about getting sued?!?

If you’re worried about lawsuits—don’t organize a conference! Someone could have been allergic to the food. Someone could have fallen down the stairs. There are a lot of things you can be sued for.

That’s about it. I’m pretty happy with the way the entire conference went. It was a lot of fun to do and we enjoyed it tremendously.