This summer, I helped organize a two-day conference with a great group. One of the things we made sure to do was have a code of conduct. We thought it was the right thing to do.
As organizers, we volunteered our time to gather colleagues to build friendships and learn from each other. None of us are security experts. Balanced Team is a self-organized bunch without a legal team or much of a budget. We are like most meetups and professional communities. Hosting an event takes a lot of work. We focused on curating a good program and covering the necessities for a fun gathering of people. Making sure everyone felt safe was a part of that.
I have training in managing sexual harassment incidents as well as victim assistance. Something I’ve learned is that a healthy community requires a safe way for people who don’t feel safe to reach out to people who can help. If there is no readily available way to share concerns or get help, victims rarely report incidents. The likelihood of a victim to make a report is also impacted by the victim’s assessment of what may happen if they do make the report.
An attendee takes a risk trusting people with professional clout when reporting an issue with an attendee, speaker, or staff . If a person has already been put in a position of vulnerability, they need some commitment from those organizers that they will treat the reporter with respect and put safety first. Otherwise, that risk may be too great to report a threat before until it escalates into an assault or something requiring legal action.
As organizers, we set the standards for our communities. We signal the culture we intend to collectively cultivate, the behavior we value, and that which we discourage. A code of conduct is a tool for the group to consider these things in a way that hasn’t been commonplace in the tech industry’s past. Even when a CoC gets copied and pasted, someone has thought about these things more than was historically common. We are encouraging good behavior.
A code of conduct is a signal to everyone that the standard of behavior at an event is mutual respect and inclusivity. We know there is a problem with active discouragement, dismissal, and harassment in our workplaces. How could we possibly believe those same people do not bring those behaviors with them to events?
At our event, we didn’t have a rigid process set for handling reports but we did have a point person, security and police information and established communication streams within the team. We had an agreement among the organizers that if something was reported, we would address it. We communicated that we wanted attendees to tell us about anything that made them uncomfortable and err on the side of safety. We communicated to everyone that the culture we were cultivating was inclusive and supportive. Other behavior was not welcome.
We did have an incident, of a type we weren’t expecting. Someone actively discouraged one of our speakers shortly before their time slot. It wasn’t illegal behavior, it wasn’t sexual harassment. It was unmistakably malicious and violated the code of conduct. Our CoC gave us a thing to point to that told people, in advance, what would not be tolerated and what response they could expect from us. We could confidently confront the individual and administer a warning. We had a mechanism for actively discouraging someone being shitty to another person at our event.
Our code of conduct helped us as organizers. We used this increasingly common practice to prepare and then act to keep our event a positive, productive gathering. Without it, we would have felt terrible for that presenter’s experience but likely would have done nothing. We would have missed an opportunity to call someone out on the type of crap that makes good people leave our community. Our speaker would not have been supported. Instead, we proactively stopped intimidation and we had our speaker’s back.
That’s why I’m not going to attend a conference or speak at one that doesn’t have a code of conduct.