The Purpose of a Code of Conduct

Last week on Twitter, there was a large discussion on whether or not Codes of Conduct are necessary for events. Again. For the 1,122,343,241,445th time. The responses were the typical uninformed arguments railing against the “PC police.” Again.

So I want to talk about CoCs from my perspective, as someone who organizes a meetup group and sometimes helps with conference events. If you know me then you already know this, but just so everyone is crystal clear on where I stand: a good CoC is an essential part in creating safe spaces at events. No CoC means you have an unsafe space. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

That said.

Having a CoC does not mean you have a safe space. A CoC is the absolute bare minimum an event should have. Creating a safe space at an event requires making inclusivity an integral part of every single decision you make as an organizer.

The venue you pick? Affects inclusivity. The drinks you pick, and if and how alcohol is served? Affects inclusivity. The food you pick? Affects inclusivity. How RSVPs are handled? Affects inclusivity. How you advertise, what you say at the beginning of the event, the speakers you invite, the communication channels for organizing the event, the makeup of the organizers, how you sell tickets, and everything else all affect inclusivity. The CoC is just a small part of it.

So how does the CoC fit into all of this, and what is it’s purpose, exactly? In my opinion, a CoC primarily serves two purposes: to set expectations and to formalize a framework for dealing with issues.

I’m something of an optimist at heart, and I do believe that everyone attending tech events wants the space to be welcoming to everyone. I also believe everyone agrees that we should encourage acceptable behavior at events.

This is what opponents of CoCs mean when they say “we’re adults, we don’t need a CoC.” They feel that since everyone is on board with the idea of not being terrible to each other, then there’s no problem.

But there is a problem. Most people can’t agree on what to have for dinner, much less what “not being terrible to each other” means. Many people, virtually if not entirely all men, think that catcalling, groping, and so on is perfectly acceptable behavior, that it’s just harmless flirting and not the harassment that it is. This is so far from acceptable it should be blatantly obvious, but somehow it’s not.

A CoC defines what is and is not acceptable behavior. It makes sure that everyone is on the same page. It lays out, specifically, what will get you in trouble and what will not. It makes the process of dealing with infractions transparent. Transparency is a good thing, and a CoC provides that. I thought that tech bros and the like were all about transparency, so wouldn’t they love this? I guess only when it benefits them personally :-/

A CoC also serves as a playbook for what to do when an incident happens. This is absolutely necessary for the person who was harassed. If a CoC doesn’t explicitly spell out what someone should do when they or someone else is being harassed, it’s a bad CoC. At bare minimum, the CoC should specify how to contact the organizers in person and electronically. This means posting names, emails, and possibly phone numbers. It also needs to guarantee anonymity, unless the law requires otherwise. It should also show that the report will be taken seriously. All of these are necessary for helping a person feel comfortable making the report. If they don’t feel comfortable, they won’t file the report. We as organizers need to know when issues arise so that we can take actions to make sure they don’t happen again. If someone doesn’t report because they’re afraid to, that is absolutely the fault of the organizers.

This playbook is also necessary for the organizers themselves. If the organizers haven’t worked out how to handle incidents before the event occurs, then they will have to figure it in the heat of the moment when one does occur. Figuring this out on the spot will not go well. The chances that the incident will be handled appropriately are very small, because everyone will be in a state of panic and scrambling to solve it quickly. Having everything spelled out in advance means there is a much greater chance of actually handling the event correctly.

The various actions to be taken for violating the CoC need to be spelled out. How you will handle reports, from a technical perspective, need to be spelled out. The redress mechanism for people who violated the CoC need to be spelled out. All of this should be crystal clear in the CoC, because it means it will be crystal clear to the organizers as well.

The most important aspect of a CoC, though, is that the organizers must believe in it and support it. If they just threw up a CoC on their website to check it off the list, it might as well not exist. In some ways it’s worse than if it didn’t exist, because it means the organizers basically lied to everyone about creating a safe space.

This is not a comprehensive list of what a CoC should and should not do, of course. That would be a much longer blog post. This is not even a comprehensive list of the purposes of a CoC. CoCs are a complicated part of a complicated process towards creating a safe space. Running events is hard enough to begin with. Creating safe spaces is much harder. But it is absolutely worth it. That we’re still arguing over one small part of a broader topic is disheartening. If anything, though, it has strengthened my resolve to work even harder towards creating safe spaces, starting, but not ending, with the CoC.

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