Codes of Conduct 101 + FAQ

Codes of Conduct 101 + FAQ

Over the past couple years, a larger discussion has been taking place about technical conferences and related events adopting code of conduct/anti-harassment policies. Below are some of the more common questions about and arguments against these policies.

Is there something missing from this list? Email me.

Code of Conduct 101

Code of Conduct FAQ


Code of Conduct 101

What is a Code of Conduct?

A Code of Conduct is a policy statement issued by an organization. To be considered an adequate code of conduct, it must have four complete parts:

  • statement of unacceptable behavior
  • how the policy will be enforced
  • how and whom to make an incident report to
  • training and reference materials for organizers, staff, and volunteers on how to respond to incident reports

What are some good examples of Codes of Conduct?

A great example can be found at It's important to note that you will also need to include who and how to report incidents as well as training for organizers, staff, and volunteers.

Having a code of conduct means you'll be joining the ranks of many high-profile technical conferences.

By using an already established policy, you don't have to worry about how it will stand up if and when it's battle-tested. Additionally, you don't have to worry as much about problematic wording such as phrasing that puts the burden of responsibility on the reporter instead of the perpetrator.

We're programmers and believe in DRY, right?

Why should an event have one? Why should I choose to only attend events with one?

A Code of Conduct is a public statement that sets the ground rules for participating in an event. Our conferences boast attendees from all over the world, coming from many different backgrounds and experiences; our expectations of what is appropriate are not always in line with one another. A policy like this ensures that everyone is on the same page without any gray areas and even better, that there will be less rules-lawyering.

The people most affected by harassing or assaulting behavior tend to be in the minority and are less likely to be visible. As high-profile members of our communities, setting the tone for the event up front is important. Having visible people of authority advocate for a safe space for them goes a long way.

Sadly, the occurence of these incidents is high. To get a taste of the types of things that have happened in the past, see the Timeline of Incidents. This is not a complete list, but gives you an idea of the types of incidents that happen regularly.

Choosing to only attend events with a Code of Conduct means you are supporting and sending a clear message to conferences that have thought about the safety and comfort of all of their attendees - the Code of Conduct signals a concious committment to that.

As a conference organizer, how do I educate people about our code of conduct?

It should be visible from every page on your website and a link should go out to it in all emails for the event. Additionally, speak about it in your opening address(es) at the conference. You can create a list of commonly asked questions to refer attendees to, as for many communities this is a new policy.

What can I do as an event sponsor, speaker, or attendee?

As a sponsor, you can pledge to only fund events with an actionable code of conduct. Heroku, as well as both the Python Software Foundation, and Django Software Foundation have made similar pledges for events they sponsor. You'll be in good company.

As a speaker or attendee, you can pledge to not attend events without a code of conduct. Email or tweet at conferences asking about their code of conduct and tell them why having a code of conduct is important to you. Ask your friends who attend or speak regularly to take the same pledge.

As a company who sends their employees to conferences, you might consider adding a policy that encourages your employees to attend those with codes of conduct, like Bendyworks has done.

Some other actions you can take as a sponsor, speaker, and attendee.

Code of Conduct FAQ

How will words on paper stop people from being jerks?

The most difficult thing to explain to people is that codes of conduct do not necessarily stop all poor behavior, in much the same way that establishing laws don't necessarily stop people from breaking them. A code of conduct lays the ground rules and notifies both bad actors as well as the people at the receiving end of that behavior that there are consequences for those actions. Think of a code of conduct like the harassment policy most American businesses have (I'm not sure how prevalent that is internationally) - it defines what harassment is (for both the harasser and the harassed) and sets the ground rules for acting on reports. A code of conduct helps by signaling that attendees should trust conference organizers, staff, and volunteers will respond appropriately should a report be made.

Instead of a code of conduct, we're making sure we have more women speakers and support organizations like RailsBridge, PyLadies, and other programs promoting diverse participation.

It's great that you are supporting organizations that are working to increase the participation of marginalized people in tech, but this aids in solving a problem that is different than why codes of conduct are needed.

A code of conduct is put in place to protect people who are already in the industry and are facing a negative atmosphere out in the community.

A code of conduct with programs to increase the number of marginalized speakers, bringing new people into the community through educational groups, increasing the accessibility of your venue, providing scholarships and child care to increase diversity and inclusion at events each play an important role in correcting the imbalance we see in the industry.

In short: these aren't mutually exclusive, do both!

Read more about increasing diversity at your conference.

My conference has never had any incidents, I don't think we need a code of conduct.

Sadly, just because you have not had reported incidents doesn't mean you haven't had or won't have incidents in the future.

If people don't report incidents, isn't it partially their fault if it happens in the future? How can we make things better if they don't report?

It is absolutely never the victim's fault. The only person to blame is the person who committed the act.

Victims/survivors in these sorts of incidents don't always report for a number of very valid reasons, including social stigma and professional, financial, physical, and personal safety. As event organizers and fellow attendees we should provide any support that we're able to with the consent of the victim.

Read more about the risk in speaking up. 

The first job of a conference organizer is to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Act on reports you do receive and work to avoid a repeat of the same.

Isn't this censorship? What about free speech?

Free speech laws do not apply to harassment and assault and furthermore don't apply to individuals that are not representing the government. The point at which a person is actively harming another individual is not only not free speech, but it is against the law.

You can read more about the first amendment on Wikipedia.

Does this mean I can't swear or make jokes?

Whether or not you can swear is entirely up to the individual event. Some events allow the attendance of children, others take place in either more conservative areas or in venues that require a certain level of professionalism. Consult a conference organizer if you are worried about swearing, especially if you intend to do so in a talk.

You are more than welcome to make jokes as long as they don't create a harassing or dangerous atmosphere for other attendees. If a joke you are considering making may violate the code of conduct, perhaps that isn't the type of joke you should be making in public around strangers or potentially at all.

If I suddenly put up a Code of Conduct won't people think we've had incidents and feel unsafe?

While you may have some attendees that worry about that, a public statement from your organization explaining why a code of conduct is being implemented now can help quiet some fears. Explain why it's important to your organization to keep all of your attendees safe and what this means for the event going forward. Feel free to point out the large list of other events that have adopted this policy.

Even if you think you haven't had an issue at your event, being aware of other issues in the community and preparing for the eventuality at your event shows you care about the safety of your attendees.

Remember that it's more important that your attendees are actually protected versus the false sense of security of believing nothing can happen to them at these community gatherings. You are thinking two steps ahead if and when something were to happen and are telling them that you will take reports seriously.

Why is the language so negative/punitive? This'll take the fun/casual atmosphere out of my event. The people attending are my friends, I'll vouch for them. Isn't it obvious/common sense what's acceptable? We're all adults here, why can't we say "be excellent to each other"?

Not everyone understands what is unacceptable behavior, especially when we are talking about a group of people that is mostly homogenous and has very little interaction with people different than they are.

We focus specifically on what isn't allowed and what violating those rules would mean so there is no gray area, no guessing, no pushing boundaries to see what will happen. "Be nice" or "Be an adult" doesn't inform well enough about what is expected if one attendee's idea of niceness or professionalism are vastly different than another's. On top of that, "be excellent to each other" has a poor track record.

You may have been running an event for a long time and many of the attendees feel they are "like family", but it actually makes the idea of an incident happening at the event even scarier. If someone is new and not part of "the family" will they be believed? Will they be treated like an invading outsider?

Remember that everyone who has harassed or assaulted someone is a parent, sibling, child, or friend to someone else. We don't always know people as well as we think we do.

I'm worried because I may have inadvertently done something in the past that would be considered a violation under this policy.

Yeah, and that sucks to realize :( No one is perfect and we all screw up sometimes, but the important part is to apologize, learn, and be better next time. Someone who you hurt shouldn't pay the price for your mistake. 

Can we exempt people like important community members or sponsors from the Code of Conduct?

No. For a code of conduct to be effective, every person - from the organizers to the sponsors to the speakers to the staff - must follow the code of conduct and be treated exactly the same under it.

What about false accusations?

False accusations are not only incredibly rare, but are less common than people choosing not to report at all. The risk a person takes for reporting an incident (not being believed, being ostracized, facing further harassment/abuse from the original person or their friends/supporters, losing financial/professional opportunities, etc) is so great that it would not be worth it for a person to falsely accuse.

One of the most damaging things we can do to someone who has faced harassment or abuse is to not believe them when they trust us enough to report.

Isn't listing specific groups and actions opening us up to loopholes?

We always run the risk of leaving out a group, unfortunately. The best defense against this is to keep your code of conduct up to date and listen to feedback from the community about how it can be improved.

Why should a Code of Conduct cover non-officially affiliated events?

Your code of conduct should apply to any event where your attendees may congregate. Since so much of the conference experience these days is at the after-parties, in hallways, and other non-official events, we have to expect that incidents can happen in those spaces that will affect people at the event.

Why wouldn't you just call the cops? Isn't this why we have laws?

Unfortunately the police don't have a great history of responding positively to incidents where a marginalized person is concerned. The arrest rates for sexual assault, for instance, are extremely low. Many people have had situations made worse by the addition of the police, whether the police don't believe them, the bias that many have against marginalized people, or due to the person's personal history with police officers. The decision of whether to call the authorities should always involve the complainant and should also weigh the further harm to other attendees. 

Also worth nothing: there are plenty of actions that can make people feel unsafe or uncomfortable that aren't necessarily against the law or warrant calling the police over. They include sexually suggestive language, slurs, or derogatory statements. In some places, for instance, sexual harassment is very contextual, so a specific action may not be against the law.

A complainant may choose to involve the police, but a report should still be taken by the event organizers as well.

Additionally, remember that with international conferences and international attendees, the laws or response of law enforcement may not mirror what they do in each person's home. We are doing what we can to create the most protection possible for all attendees at our events.

From a lawyer: How conference anti-harassment policies + codes of conduct work together with law enforcement to keep people safe (video)


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