Why Codes of Conduct Matter

Why Codes of Conduct Matter

“We have a few things we need to take care of first, and then we’re going to dive right into our presentations.”

It is 9:55am on a Wednesday morning, and Steve Fisher is midway through his opening remarks for the inaugural Design and Content Conference. On the screen behind him, a picture of a red t-shirt with the word “STAFF” printed in large white caps and an emergency phone number is prominently displayed.

“A big deal here is safety. We want you all to feel safe and included in this. We have a code of conduct that everybody that’s here had to agree to to attend. In case you didn’t read that, you should probably go to the website and read it at some point, but if I could sum it up, it’s that we all need to take care of each other; we need to feel safe. Inclusion is important. So regardless of age, race, gender, anything, everyone should feel welcome. Just as a way of us agreeing to that, could we give another round of applause?”

The applause is loud and heartfelt. There are cheers. From the back of the room I see heads nodding, people turning to each other in conversation.

“Staff t-shirts. Can’t miss them. So if you need something, anything at all, if you have a question or a comment or concern, look for one of us in the red t-shirts. There’s a bunch around. Don’t hesitate. Complaints, kind words, come find us.

“Yeah, so this is the number. And at the other end of this number is one of our volunteers, Shannon. You can call this number at any time if you’re feeling unsafe, or if you see someone that you’re concerned about. We want to make sure you’re taken care of. You can be anonymous when you do this, or you can give your name and they’ll just interact with you and make sure that everything is taken care of, whether that’s incident reporting or just helping a situation to resolve. We do take this very, very seriously, so if you are violating our code of conduct, that can mean ejection from the event.

“Let’s take care of each other here. We want this to be a positive, fun thing.”

I sit back and think, “This is how it’s done.”

(You can read a full rundown of the Design and Content Conference Code of Conduct, complete with a video of the statement above, in Steve Fisher’s piece “Lessons from a Code of Conduct”)

Codes of Conduct are (Surprisingly) Controversial

If you’re involved in the web community, and especially if you attend, speak at, or organize events, you will have encountered conversations about Codes of Conduct. More and more conferences are publishing Codes of Conduct, and a lot of people have strong opinions about them, ranging from “I won’t go to a conference unless a CoC is in place” to “CoCs are a false safety net that actually makes the root problem worse and puts people in danger.”

I fall squarely in the first category. I believe Codes of Conduct are not only important, but necessary for our community and its events to reach their full potential. We need agreed upon guidelines for what is acceptable behavior if we want our communities to be truly inclusive, and that is what Codes of Conduct provide. They are our agreed upon laws, and if you break them, there are consequences. Their role spans beyond protecting participants from harassment. Codes of Conduct also provide participants with a framework of what to do when something is not right. That, I feel, is a part of the conversation that is generally ignored, and it is one that sheds a whole new light on the situation.

I want to tell you two stories about Codes of Conduct to show you why I believe they matter.

“I don’t want to be here.”

At a conference last year, the wife of a friend posted a cryptic message on Twitter that included the sentence “I don’t want to be here.” Based on the context, I inferred that she had had some sort of negative experience. Surprised to see her the next day, I asked what had happened. Here’s the gist of it:

The day before, she had spent some time in the sponsor area between talks looking at what was on offer. At one of the booths, she overheard two sponsor representatives making crude jokes about the women at the conference; how they were surprised there were so many of them, and how a lot of them were not meeting their expectations in terms of appearance. She wouldn’t go into more detail, but based on my previous interactions with her, I think it’s fair to assume the comments were quite crude and offensive.

“And yet you came back for day two?” I asked. She explained that after venting on Twitter, one of the organizers reached out to her, found out what had happened, and dealt with it. Exactly what was done I am not sure, but I did notice the sponsorship table in question remained unstaffed for the rest of the conference.

Two things are important here. First, the complaint was taken seriously and investigated. Second, the incident was dealt with in a clean and low-key way that minimized disruption to the rest of the conference.

“Are you a man, or are you a p***y?”

The second incident happened in the lunch area at a conference some time ago at which I was a speaker. Before I continue, I should point out that the following includes talk of sexual violence, and talk of trafficking. If you do not want to be exposed to this, skip this section and pick up again below.

I was sitting in the lunch area of about 100 men, women, and children, sharing a meal with my partner, directly across from two attendees. One of them was doing almost all the talking, at a volume you’d expect from someone calling you from a car trapped in a tunnel with bad reception instead of a cafeteria full of people. The subject in question: A trip to Thailand to buy women for sex.
“Are you a man, or are you a p***y?” he challenged. “You need to prove yourself. You can buy as many as you like, and do anything you want with them. They are yours. You own them. They will not complain. Prove you are a man.”

Suddenly I was back in Phuket. The year was 1996, and we were on a family trip to Thailand. Driving across the island, we passed bar after bar seemingly located in the middle of nowhere. When I asked why the bars were so isolated, the answer I got was that the clients liked it that way. “They buy women,” our driver said. “It is not good.”

Later in the trip we went to a night market in Bangkok. This was the first time I understood just how fitting the term “meat market” was for the trade of human trafficking. There were women on offer everywhere, many of them tweens or even younger, and the acts promised to every passerby ranged from vaguely criminal to flat out inhuman.

Nearly 20 years later, I found myself at a web conference in the USA listening to an attendee describing how exciting it was to “own” a woman and treat her “like an object, like an animal.”

Looking around, nobody was reacting. I felt my brain split down the middle. Lacking a Code of Conduct – its organizers having been vocal about not supporting such statements in the past – I assumed the volunteers were not trained to deal with this situation, yet no crime was being committed, so I couldn’t call the cops.

I spoke up, loudly enough that I knew the men would hear me, and told my wife “I can’t believe these two guys behind you. They are literally talking about buying women for sex.” She had not been paying attention and started to listen intently, but the men grew quiet before switching to French to continue the conversation.

Had a Code of Conduct been in place, bravery would not have been necessary.

Upon telling this story to my sister-in-law, she called me out for not being more forceful. “You should have gone up to them and told them, loudly, to leave,” she said. In hindsight, I agree. So why didn’t I? Equal parts experience and cowardice.

I have confronted this type of behavior in the past, and the consequences have usually been bad. In one instance I was nearly hit in the face. In another I was yelled at by the organizer for “causing a scene.” In this situation I felt the chance of a full- on confrontation leading to the men calmly leaving and everything being OK was very low. At the same time, I knew the conference organizer would play the situation down and do nothing about it. Subtle public shaming seemed a better and more immediately effective option.

But it was my cowardice that won the day. I was in an unfamiliar city, a guest at a conference I did not have a hand in organizing, and in a community where I had few ties but wanted to build a relationship. Starting a confrontation, and pulling in volunteers or the organizer, was in my mind sure to cause a large commotion without a resolution. At best, it would lead to the men being told to tone it down. At worst, it would become the talk of the conference and distract from the high quality content and great community interactions. More than likely, any aspirations I had of establishing a relationship with this conference and its community would be quashed.

I chose the easy way out, and was lucky it worked, at least to a degree. Had I been braver, I could have done so much more. But, had a Code of Conduct been in place, bravery would not have been necessary.

Here’s what could have happened: Upon overhearing the conversation, I could have gone to a volunteer and told them of the conversation. The volunteer could have contacted the person in charge of enforcing the Code of Conduct. That person could have approached the two men and asked them to leave. More than likely, the offenders would have also been banned from future conferences, as promotion of trafficking and sexual abuse is a clear and egregious breach of even the most lenient Codes of Conduct.

None of this happened. Why? Because the organizer believes that “grown-ups can manage themselves,” “people know right from wrong,” “we are not a nanny state,” and “Codes of Conduct do more harm than good.”

The Role and Importance of the Code of Conduct

We do take this very, very seriously, so if you are violating our code of conduct, that can mean ejection from the event.”

A lot has been made of how talking about Codes of Conduct at the beginning of a conference can start the whole event on a sour note. Even if this were true (it is not. Just ask Steve), whatever slight discomfort felt by some attendees is nothing compared to the destructive experience of being exposed to promotion of trafficking, misogynistic commentary, racist remarks, discriminatory language, or being verbally, psychologically, physically, or sexually assaulted in an environment meant for learning.

Some counter this by saying that if something bad happens, you should simply involve the police. While this is true, it’s a red herring in the conversation about Codes of Conduct. Yes, criminal activity should lead to an immediate call to the police, but Codes of Conduct have a wider scope that protects attendees from more than direct criminal behavior.

The Code of Conduct serves as a framework not unlike a Human Resources handbook, financial regulations, or criminal law. It stipulates a set of rules that all who attend an event or participate in a community agree to about how to behave and what type of speech and acts are considered appropriate. It is not an enforcement tool; it is the basis from which enforcement is executed. Moreover, for a Code of Conduct to work, it must not only be enforced, but done so the right way.

This seems to be the final sticking point of the discussion. Many argue that Codes of Conduct are the easy way out for communities and events. By simply slapping on a Code of Conduct, the organizers can say they did their part without lifting a finger to actually do anything substantive, so that if and when something happens, it provides a false sense of security for the attendees.

The critics who back this claim typically ask for a better solution. Fewer words, more actions. In lieu of a Code of Conduct, they want a “model that works.” My argument is that the Code of Conduct is one half of the model that works; the other half being enforcement.

The Model That Works

To those who still have doubts, I say look at the Design and Content Conference and their approach to the Code of Conduct:

  • A Code of Conduct was published in advance, and all participants – attendees, speakers, volunteers, and organizers – agreed to it.
  • The Code of Conduct, and consequences of breaking it, were explained at the start of the conference.
  • Slides with contact info and helpful instructions on how to deal with Code of Conduct violations were displayed throughout the conference.
  • A phone number was made available for reporting Code of Conduct violations.
  • A dedicated volunteer with proper training was assigned to deal with all Code of Conduct violations.
  • All other volunteers were instructed to pass any reports of Code of Conduct violations to the dedicated volunteer.
  • Reporters of Code of Conduct violations had the option of making an anonymous report and making the report in private.
  • And finally, the Code of Conduct was enforced.

What Steve and his team proved is that a good Code of Conduct, clearly stipulated and enforced, elevates the experience and establishes a safe place for all who wish to participate. They also showed that having, referencing, and enforcing that Code of Conduct does not put a damper on the event; It elevates it. Codes of Conduct are agreements we make to treat each other like people.

If you’ve found the stories I’ve shared surprising or unusual, count yourself lucky. To many, such situations become the defining element of conferences and the reason they hesitate to take part. To consider the experience of others in addition to our own is what will help us build a healthier and happier community. And the first step in this process is to agree to a Code of Conduct.

Further Reading

This post has been republished on Medium.

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