When a Code of Conduct becomes harmful

Karolina Szczur
3 min readNov 21, 2017

Over the last few years having a Code of Conduct has become more or less a standard for tech events of all sorts. Unfortunately, as much as overall it’s a significant development it can be possibly very harmful, if not implemented correctly.

Often, Code of Conduct is a bare minimum for determining whether conference organizers have thought about safety and inclusion at all. There are excellent resources out there, such as Geek Feminism anti-harassment policy, Conference Code of Conduct or Contributor Covenant, which empower organizers across the globe to adopt one without hours of research or legal counsel.

What makes a Code of Conduct enforceable?

Sadly, the byproduct of the widespread availability of these resources resulted in many instances of copy-pasting, without a thorough understanding of implementation as well as enforcement. It’d be hard to expect a response when there’s no way of reporting an incident or contacting individuals responsible for the event. But how do I know a Code of Conduct is enforceable, you might ask. There’s no certainty (unless you know the organizers) but there are a few pointers to pay attention to.

A few of them include:

  • List of unacceptable behaviors (“be nice to each other” doesn’t cut it)
  • Specific guidelines on how the Code of Conduct will be enforced
  • Detailed description of ways to report in person, online and anonymously
  • Organiser contact information
  • Emergency numbers and addresses within the vicinity of the venue

Besides public-facing information, there’s a whole breadth of training staff members should undertake such as mechanisms of tracking reports and on-site response. It’s crucial to ensure not only the Code of Conduct committee but the entire staff is well aware of precautions, reporting and the process set in place to ensure participants safety (you can refer to FrameShift Consulting and their training materials for excellent advice on how to do so).

But is Code of Conduct enough?

In a perfect scenario, Code of Conduct is a vital part of a broader inclusion strategy. We might be looking for a few other pointers, proving that commitment, such as, but not limited to:

  • healthy, dietary requirements-compliant catering
  • live transcription and sign language interpretation
  • lowering the presence and importance of alcohol
  • gender-neutral bathrooms
  • continuously diverse lineup of speakers
  • scholarship programs
  • an accessibility statement
  • a media policy
  • complimentary childcare

Publishing a copied Code of Conduct on a website doesn’t constitute a viable inclusion plan.

It’s necessary we do better than this, especially implementing approaches with quantifiable results that can be tracked over the years (What did the lineup of speakers look like? How diverse is the audience? What’s the post-event feedback?).

No Code of Conduct is always better than the presence of a failing one.

Willingly giving an impression of safety just to protect from being potentially called out or risking credibility is unacceptable. Adequate measures have to be in place. Otherwise, we’re trading the safety for making ourselves look reasonably good in the face of the public. Underrepresented groups, as well as diversity and inclusion specialists, can see straight through this.

Whether you’re running an event of any sorts or a founder, it’s crucial to establish a Code of Conduct. More resources quoted below will help you in doing so.

This article is made possible by lovely Patreon supporters, backing my diversity and inclusion efforts. I intend to publish on D&I topics once a week and create reusable resources, guides, and apps. Support it if you’re inclined.

Special thanks to the following companies: Webflow, Buildkite, Prismatik, Bitgenics and nearForm 💞