How and why we improved DjangoCon Europe’s Code of Conduct

For DjangoCon Europe 2018, we restructured our Code of Conduct in order to better reflect our intentions and values.

Image by Rane.abhijeet

For quite some time, DjangoCon Europe, along with many other conferences have used a similar Code of Conduct. Originally based on the example from Geek Feminism Wiki and earlier versions from PyCon US, this almost identical text is used very widely. For DjangoCon Europe 2018, I felt it was time for a refresher.

The changes were initially written by me, and then refined together with the rest of the conference team. I also took a lot of inspiration from the Django community Code of Conduct, including changes that I already pushed there.

Why was it time for change?

In a way, I felt that our Code of Conduct (CoC) started to feel like we were just copy-pasting it year after year without thinking. Now, every conference where I was on the team, has always been very committed to upholding the CoC. This includes dealing with reports professionally, appropriately and with compassion, and not being afraid to take harsh actions when needed.

However, I felt that our values and intentions did not come across well enough in our published text. It didn’t help that almost the same text was now also being used by many other conferences, some of which managed their CoC poorly.

The essence of our restructured CoC is still the same, but I wanted to improve on a few specific things:

  • Lowering the barrier for reporting, as much as we can. In my view, this is one of the hardest issues for a CoC team.
  • Being more explicit about where the CoC applies.
  • Being more explicit about possible law enforcement involvement.
  • Explicitly listing possible CoC actions.
  • Expanding on the reasons for having a CoC, both with the goal of encouraging reporting, but also improve understanding among people who are more skeptical towards CoCs.

One of my inspirations was Sage Sharp’s post in CoC enforcement warning signs — which were obviously signs I wanted to avoid:

Lowering the reporting barrier

Please do not feel like you may be a burden to us by reporting incidents. Even if you happen to report multiple incidents during the conference. We rather consider reports an opportunity for us to act: by knowing about an incident, we can act on it, and often prevent it from continuing or repeating. But if we don’t know, we can’t take action.
— New DjangoCon Europe 2018 Code of Conduct

At one conference, where I was not an organiser, someone approached me because she’d seen me mention CoCs in my talk. She quietly asked me “so, I reported that issue I told you about, and the team handled it well, but now something else happened today — do you think it’s ok for me to report a second time?”. I told her it was fine, and that I’d be happy to mediate if needed.

This is one of the experiences that made me aware of how hard it can be to report something, along with my own reporting hesitance at times. Reporting can feel like a huge step, because it sets so much process in motion. However, in a CoC team, I am nothing but grateful when people choose to report, because it gives us a chance to address the issue, and perhaps learn how to prevent similar issues in the future.

One time I was on the Code of Conduct team and someone came to me reluctantly. He wanted to bring something up that felt off to him, but didn’t think it was something he could make a CoC report about, because he wasn’t sure. In the end, we did take this through the CoC process, and found that although the CoC had not been violated, there was an important lesson that we could immediately act upon: we hadn’t been sufficiently clear on the venues where the CoC applied. So even though there was no violation, this reluctant reporter helped us see where we needed to improve. That’s why I also wanted it to be as encouraging as possible when people aren’t sure:

If you are not sure whether the situation was a Code of Conduct violation, or whether it applied to that particular space, we encourage you to still report it. We would much rather have a few extra reports where we decide to take no action, rather than miss a report of an actual violation. We do not look negatively on you if we find the incident is not a violation. And knowing about incidents that are not violations, or happen outside our spaces, can also help us to improve the Code of Conduct or the processes surrounding it.

Being explicit about where the CoC applies

The only clarity we offered about the scope of our CoC used to be:

We expect participants to follow these rules at all conference venues and conference-related social events.

What are the conference venues? Certainly the building where you do talks or sprints, but how about the hotel where you booked rooms for your speakers? We needed more clarity on this.

Unfortunately, this question comes with some grey areas. You’ll encounter this from time to time in your CoC processes. Sometimes it’s just hard to define exactly where the line is. Certain behaviour which is okayish in a private corner with an old friend, may be unacceptable on a stage.

Don’t let such grey areas stop you. Because a CoC is not like a law. We don’t have courtrooms where people argue for days over the meaning of a specific word, where that single fact determines the entire outcome. Sometimes we can be quite specific, and that’s nice, but sometimes we can’t. Rather, whether you’re an organiser or an attendee, try to think in the spirit and intention of the CoC — while still being clear and explicit as much as possible, where possible. This is a learning process too.

For this year’s DjangoCon Europe, we went for:

This Code of Conduct applies to all conference related spaces. That includes, but is not limited to:
- The conference venue(s)
- The conference hotel(s)
- Any conference related social activities
- Slack channels, tweets with the conference hashtag, and other online media
The Code of Conduct does not exclusively apply to events on the conference agenda. For example, if after a scheduled social event you go to a bar with a group of fellow participants, and someone harasses you there, we would still treat that as a CoC violation.

As you can see, we haven’t been able to remove all ambiguity. But by adding an example of how the CoC can even apply to an event entirely off the official agenda, we hope we encourage people to report even if something happens in such a space.

Being more explicit about law enforcement

As a CoC team, it is also our task to escalate if needed. If a CoC violation may also be a crime, like an assault, we should help a reporter involve law enforcement and assist with liaising and translating. This was already a part of our CoC:

Conference staff will be happy to help participants contact hotel/venue security or local law enforcement, provide escorts, or otherwise assist those experiencing harassment to feel safe for the duration of the conference.

Not everyone has good associations with law enforcement though. People in many marginalised groups are at dramatically elevated risks of police abuse and brutality. Some people have moral issues with law enforcement policy. Whatever the reason, some attendees may prefer to avoid contact with law enforcement as much as possible, and we weren’t explicit about that before. Therefore, we added:

However, we will not contact security or law enforcement without your consent, except when not doing so would create significant danger for other participants.

The exclusion for significant danger gives us an option in case of, for example, an ongoing violent incident that we are not immediately able to contain. That creates such a severe danger for others, that their safety would likely prevail over the interests of someone who did not want law enforcement involved.

Explicitly listing possible CoC actions

The Code of Conduct doesn’t list a range of consequences for violating the rules. This typically indicates that event organizers aren’t prepared to enforce their Code of Conduct. Vague phrases like “violators will not be welcome at the event” may mean an event doesn’t have an incident response plan that includes a tiered level of responses to deal with everything from inappropriate jokes up to interpersonal violence.
CoC enforcement warning sign #4, Otter Tech

Although we did mention possible actions, the old text just felt kind of weak:

If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the conference organizers may take any action they deem appropriate, including warning the offender or expulsion from the conference with no refund.

And so we expanded to a new text:

In case of a Code of Conduct violation, some of the most common actions organisers may take are:
- Demanding that a participant stops their behaviour.
- Demanding that a participant prevents further contact with certain other participants.
- Not publishing the video of a conference talk.
- Cancelling a conference talk.
- Removing a participant from the conference, without refund.
The action taken is at the discretion of the Code of Conduct team. Participants are expected to comply immediately, and further action may be taken in case a participant does not comply. A record will be kept of all incidents.

To me the new text feels more powerful, in that it comes across more that we are willing and able to take any of these actions if needed. And that firmness is important in at least part of your CoC, to make sure people take it seriously. This was heavily inspired from the Django community CoC reporting guide.

Expanded reasoning for the CoC

I added an explicit section on why we have a CoC. The goal of this is to take CoC further away from a strict definition of exact rules, and to be clearer on why we do all this, and what it’s all about. In a way, it shows the values we had in mind when we decided that there should be a Code of Conduct.

This can further reduce the barrier to reporting, but it can also help to improve understanding of the CoC, even among people who are more skeptical or even negative towards CoCs.

To me, the improved DjangoCon Europe 2018 CoC reflects our intentions better than the old one, but I think there is still room for further improvement. Based on our experiences at the conference, we’ll find new things to improve. If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear them, so that we can continue to build inclusive, welcoming and safe communities.

In a future blog post, I’ll also take you through our response guidelines.

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