How to write a great code of conduct

Your community deserves the best

If you have attended a school, gone to an event, or joined an online group, you have participated in communities governed by codes of conduct. Depending on the organization, codes of conduct may also be called community guidelines or harassment policies. No matter the title, they will all contain similar information about the values of the community and how to hold it accountable to those values.

As an official or unofficial community leader, you have the power and responsibility to make your community better by crafting and sharing a code of conduct. As a community member, codes of conduct should empower you. You have the right to be safe and treated fairly in your community. If you participate in communities that do not have these policies, speak up! Share this article; encourage community leadership to write a code of conduct or draft one yourself and submit it to them.

Want one-on-one help writing your code of conduct? Let’s talk.

Understand Your Community

Instead of writing a code of conduct from scratch, many organizations find a code of conduct for another event online, change a few words and consider it done. So many conventions and conferences are using the Geek Feminism code of conduct or the Game Developer code of conduct. Both of these codes of conduct are good on their own, but by adapting them to dozens of conferences with different cultures, tones, sizes, and methods of communication, they lose their value. Codes of conduct need to be customized to a community. Before writing one, ensure you understand your community by answering the following questions:

  1. What is the make up of your community? What types of people come together within it?
  2. Who is in the majority and who is in the minority? What groups or people are marginalized within your community?
  3. What are your community’s values? Are these well known throughout the community?
  4. What challenges has your community faced in the past? What challenges do you anticipate facing as you grow?
  5. How does your community interact? Examples include: In-person, through your event’s app, on Twitter through the event hashtag, in an official or unofficial Facebook / Slack group, etc.

Use these answers to define your community at the beginning of the code of conduct and define violations, enforcement, and methods of reporting as detailed below.

We recently developed a code of conduct for the Tech Ladies community. It begins with:

Tech Ladies is a community for cis women, trans women, and nonbinary people. We urge our members to not assume the pronouns of others. While many of our members use she/her, for example, some use they/them. Remember not to judge people’s gender based on their photos or names they use on Facebook.

Define violations of your policy

Good codes of conduct will include sections on how the group or organization responds to comments promoting violence or hatred against members of marginalized groups as well as sections about physical, verbal, and sexual harassment or assault. Remember to focus on all methods of community interaction. If you are writing a code for an event, still include violations that could occur on online spaces. If you are writing a code for a Facebook community, remember to include a section about any in-person meetups you have.

Again, you do not want to just copy-paste another code of conduct here. The language and the number of examples you use will vary based on your community values and past problems you have experienced. For example, some communities will want to list out examples of harassment if there have been issues with people not realizing certain behaviors were violations. For in-person events, include policies about photography (like asking someone before photographing) and more casual physical contact (like hugging). For online spaces, ensure you have a policy about sharing posts outside the community, if you are in a closed community like an email list, Facebook group, or Slack community.

We developed the code of conduct for Tekko, an annual anime convention in Pittsburgh. Tekko proudly displayed their policies throughout the con.

Define methods of reporting

A Data & Society report found that only 38% of people witnessing or experiencing online harassment reported the behavior through the tools available on the online platform. We don’t have a data set for percentage of people reporting incidents at in-person gatherings, but we do find that a lot of the data reported through our post-convention Elephant At The Con surveys were not reported to organizers at the time. As an event organizer or community leader, you want to know any and all issues occurring so you can work to improve them. It is in your best interest to make reporting as easy as possible.

  • For events, best practice is to have multiple methods of reporting: in-person in various locations, by phone, and through email or an online form.
  • For online groups, people can report through a private message on the group’s platform, an anonymous Google form, or an email list. Encourage people to screenshot evidence of the issue in case it is deleted.

Providing an anonymous way of reporting, like a form, will likely increase reports. However, it isn’t always possible to maintain the anonymity as you may require follow-up information in order to resolve the issue. If you are using a hotline, try to have it staffed by someone working your event and not staff from the event location. This ensures that when people call the hotline they are speaking with someone familiar with the event, its terminology, and who will be respectful of people’s pronouns and other concerns. Always ensure that methods of reporting are widely publicized.

Define enforcement

Ensure you understand the enforcement mechanisms and limitations available to you based on your venue or platform. For example, if you are running a convention in a hotel, you can likely kick violators out of your event spaces, but not the hotel most guests are staying at. If you are running a closed community like Facebook, you can kick them out of the group and report them to the platform for particularly egregious issues, but cannot ban someone from Facebook entirely or prevent them from creating a new account and re-joining. Work within these restrictions to create a safe community experience and share that policy.

  • Define what will happen if someone violates a policy.
  • Define under what circumstances someone will get a warning, how many warnings they will receive, under what circumstances they will get kicked out, and if they will be allowed back after a certain period of time.
  • Make sure to leave room for your own discretion as some egregious violations should result in immediate removal.

Share Widely

If you have followed our advice and spent time writing your code of conduct, don’t bury it as a link on the registration page and never announce it again. Consider:

  • Printing the entire text or a quick link on event badges
  • Posting around the event area, in the exhibitor hall, in bathroom stalls, in panel rooms, etc.
  • Pinning your post to your Facebook group or putting it in the group description
  • Putting it in a prominent part on your website
  • Referencing your code of conduct when your group has a difficult discussion
The Tech Ladies Facebook group has their code of conduct as a pinned post

Your code of conduct should be a living document that changes as your community changes. If you expand from a small conference to a conference of thousands, adjust your policy to account for the changes. As people report incidents, ensure that these case are covered by your policy and continue to adjust.

Good luck!

Christopher, Gia, and Paul volunteering at VidCon 2017.

Uplift is a nonprofit dedicating to combating sexual violence in online communities through education and advocacy. We have worked on codes of conduct for conventions like Tekko and Book Riot Live, and online communities like Tech Ladies. We are happy to discuss editing or writing your code of conduct, reach out: contactus@uplifttogether.org or at conresources.org.