Why You Want a Code of Conduct & How We Made One

The day I drafted the code of conduct for OpenNews’ first conference, SRCCON, I mentioned it on Twitter and got some puzzled replies. Why would a conference need such a thing? Why not just say “don’t be a jerk?” The subtext was clear: a formal code treats professionals like unruly children, and surely isn’t really necessary, right?

So I want to go back to some basics and explain not only why codes of conduct matter, but also why you’re incredibly fortunate if you have the chance to make one. And then I’ll offer what I’ve learned about making one, and some advice I’ve received along the way.

Why we need codes

A code of conduct is a formal documentation of your event/community/project’s standards of behavior, and a statement of your process for handling breaches of those standards. In the communities I’m involved in, codes of conduct tend to focus on anti-harassment policies, and those—along with policies focused on intimidation, discrimination, and straight-up assault—are the areas I’ll focus on here, but a code of conduct could deal with a much broader set of positive or negative behaviors.

To begin with, you aren’t creating a code of conduct only—or even primarily—for the people who are likely to break it. You’re creating it…

  • to make it clear to anyone who has been harmed or harassed, online or off, that your space is safe for them, and that you have taken their needs, and their existence, into consideration
  • to help anyone who experiences intimidation or harassment feel safer coming forward (which is, paradoxically, extra important if your community has the reputation of being full of amazing people, since it can be especially intimidating to make a report if someone widely respected gives you trouble)
  • to encourage people to feel even a little more comfortable stepping in and taking care of their fellow attendees, or reporting a problem they’ve seen

And what about for the people who behave in ways a code of conduct prohibits? Will a code of conduct keep them away from an event or project? Probably not. Will it make them less likely to engage in aggression or harassment? If they believe your code of conduct is meaningful and important to you, I suspect it will. And if you have a policy and a plan, you greatly increase the chances that even if someone shows up and does harm, they won’t be able to do it more than once.

When we were discussing the need for a SRCCON code of conduct, OpenNews’ director, Dan Sinker, compared it to having a fire marshal present at a major event. You don’t do it because you expect a fire. You do it because you could have a fire, so it would therefore be irresponsible not to have a fire-safety plan. In the same way, posting a code of conduct doesn’t imply that your community is particularly rife with harassment or intimidation, but that you acknowledge the existence of those problems, and recognize that as an organizer, you have to to plan for common worst-case scenarios. And although you may be able to leave your literal fire-safety plans in the hands of your venue managers, any conduct problems that fall short of “call the police/an ambulance” are going to be yours to resolve—not to mention anything that happens at dinner across the street or in an online backchannel, rather than in the main venue itself.

My favorite book-world event, Readercon, goes further than most and maintains a standing safety committee to handle anti-harassment and other health and safety matters. “Health and safety” is the best framing I’ve seen for this work: if you treat it as optional, you’re ducking your responsibility to your community.

BTW, your code isn’t good enough (and neither is mine)

In the conference world, at least, a lot of the conversation about harassment and related safety issues centers on having a code of conduct or anti-harassment policy. Every discussion has to start somewhere, but a code of conduct does zero good if it’s not part of a larger commitment to—yes—health and safety, and the general well-being of participants. What does that larger commitment look like? It means that you, the event organizer, not only post a code of conduct, but are fully prepared to communicate it clearly, ease the process of reporting violations or any other health and safety issue, enforce it as needed, and ensure that you have a prearranged process for handling trouble that everyone on your team fully understands.

Ultimately, the code and contact process are your 911. They’re only meaningful if you’ve done all you can to prevent problems beforehand and have an emergency response prepared to handle anything you can’t head off. So when I talk about a code of conduct, I’m really talking about a whole complex of preparation and processes that help keep your community members safe. (And if your prep doesn’t include a note about when you literally call 911 or your local equivalent, it’s probably not complete enough.)


Now, this is all stuff that many others have said better than I have—see the big list of resources below for evidence. The thing I want to add is that the opportunity to define a code of conduct—to set clear behavioral and safety expectations—is an extraordinary opportunity.

I’m writing this in the late summer of 2014, and the last few weeks have been rough ones where I live. From the tech world’s routine accounts of casual harassment to the grind of violence and systemic unfairness that defines some part of every human society, we are surrounded on all sides by news that is alternately heartbreaking and enraging. And most of the time, in the face of these wrongs, we are helpless. Some of us can vote, some can investigate and expose. That’s often as far as it goes.

But to define a code of conduct is to formally state that your community—your event or organization or project—does not permit intimidation or harassment or any of the other terrible things that we can’t seem to prevent in the rest of the world. It’s to express and nurture healthy community norms. In a small, limited way, it’s to offer sanctuary to the vulnerable: to stake out a space you can touch, put it under your protection, and make it a welcoming home for all who act with respect.

And I think that’s what’s going to win. Enough of us clearly stating that in our spaces, this fuckery will not pass. And continuing to do it—one home, school, workplace, and community at a time—until the ground we cover with a mandate of mutual respect is larger than the gaps in between. Not out of any special benevolence, but because that’s what the world should be.

That’s enough to get me out of bed in the morning.

Getting it done

So what makes a good code or policy? I’m a latecomer to this game, and while I’ll talk through what we did for SRCCON, I need to first point to these resources, which I’ve found extremely helpful:

Using that list as a starting point, you’ll quickly find yourself awash in thoughtful advice and solid examples to help you get started. We began our own process with the guidelines that our code would be four things: specific, human, supported by action, and true to our community.

Specific enough to be useful

When I mentioned online that I was defining a code of conduct for SRCCON, several people spoke up to ask why we couldn’t just say something like “be excellent to each other.” That’s what we’re after, right? And we are. But as the Ada Initiative suggests, a code of conduct needs to specify behaviors that are a problem as well as noting general principles, or it will fail as a formal statement of community norms. “Be professional” doesn’t cut it, because people behave in harassing ways all the time in obviously professional situations. “Be good to each other” might be the core principle, but unless you dig into the uncomfortable details, any breach of the code is going to come back to entirely subjective, situational judgment—which is what a code is supposed to prevent. There will always be a subjective element, but the point of a code is to offload as much of that as possible into a formal, codified statement…which means you actually have to get down into the things that can go wrong.

The hardest parts of our code to write were the most detailed parts:

SRCCON and OpenNews are committed to providing a welcoming and harassment-free environment for participants of all races, gender and trans statuses, sexual orientations, physical abilities, physical appearances, and beliefs.

Refrain from demeaning, discriminatory, or harassing behavior and speech. Harassment includes, but is not limited to: deliberate intimidation; stalking; unwanted photography or recording; sustained or willful disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact; use of sexual or discriminatory imagery, comments, or jokes; and unwelcome sexual attention.

No one wants to think about this stuff, but unless you have the language, there’s too much ambiguity. The statement we chose isn’t perfect, but it provides for the use cases we talked through, some of which included racist jokes or pornographic images in presentations, intentionally and unintentionally disruptive aggressive behavior, everything to do with stalking, and plain old sexual harassment—all of which have happened at tech-world conferences in the last few years.

For our code, we borrowed heavily from the Citizen Code of Conduct, Django Code of Conduct, and Theorizing the Web code of conduct (used with permission), and wrote sections of our own text as well, mostly in service of making the code as human-friendly as possible. Which brings us to the next guideline.

Written for humans

It’s easier to write a code of conduct or anti-harassment policy if you write it in quasi-legalese. The “prohibited behaviors” part in our code that I quote above gets close to that, mostly because we wanted to be so specific, and needed to use relatively formal language to do so in a way that was intelligible to our whole readership. But it was also important to us to make our code as human as we could, because we wanted to make it clear that we didn’t see it as obligatory but ultimately unimportant fine print, like the EULAs and terms of service we’ve all been trained to ignore. On the other hand, we didn’t want to use sarcasm or cuteness as a shortcut to conversational language, because doing so would undercut the work itself. A snarky or insincere code of conduct can come across as a mockery of people who experience harassment and discrimination, making it worse than having no code at all.

Keeping it human also means striking the right balance between brevity and detail—no one’s going to read a nine-page code of conduct, but a single paragraph can’t possibly be specific enough. We did okay with these trade-offs, I think, particularly in our introduction, but I’d like to do better next year.

My favorite parts of our code are the ones that sound most human: “Be considerate in speech and action, and actively seek to acknowledge and respect the boundaries of fellow attendees,” and “Take care of each other.” Those are the theoretical points on which the code is built: the rest is (absolutely necessary) explanation, clarification, and commentary.

Underpinned by a plan of action

Your code of conduct can be a thing of grace and beauty, but again, it’s useless if you aren’t ready to make yourself available for reports and enforce your provisions. Running through scenarios to make sure your team is on the same page about which behaviors receive warnings and which are an automatic boot from the event/project is important. Equally important is the need to talk about the possibility of a report made about a trusted friend or colleague, or even a staff member or event organizer. Having a plan for handling upsetting possibilities with speed in the moment—and then dealing with them as needed in the hours or days after—is what gives a code weight.

Before SRCCON began, we set up a Google Voice number that would reach the cellphones of our staff with calls and texts, and we posted that number on our website and read it out from the stage at the conference opening, when we reintroduced the code of conduct and our reporting mechanisms. In the code itself, we described the kinds of actions we would take in case of a problem, outlined our process for handling reports, and offered a way to file a grievance if anyone believed they’d been reported unfairly or incorrectly. We also had some difficult but necessary conversations about when to recuse ourselves from the process (if someone named in a report is a close friend, for example), and how to handle emergency situations—not just harassment, but also things like injuries, sudden illnesses, or the arrival of people known to have stalked or harassed attendees of the conference.

One thing we didn’t discuss, but will next year, is a uniform, humane approach to receiving reports from potentially traumatized attendees (link via a former Readercon safety committee member who notes that it’s no replacement for a few hours of real training). The interpersonal side of first-responder work is another one of those things things you expect to handle by not being a terrible person, but that there are actual best practices for.  Also next year, I’d like us to follow the example of other conferences and broaden our preparation to include other people involved in the conference. Readercon, for example, trains all members of its conference committee (not just the smaller safety committee) in receiving and addressing reports of code violations. Our core SRCCON team consisted of only five people, and we all discussed safety processes, but next year we’ll get conference volunteers more involved as well.

To our collective relief, we got through the conference without a single report or known (to us) incident of health or safety trouble, not counting an array of hangovers on the second morning. Did our code of conduct and surrounding processes have anything to do with that? There’s no way to know. But we did hear from multiple people throughout and after the event that our attention to those things made them feel that we were taking inclusiveness seriously, and that we had their backs—and those statements alone made the process worthwhile.

True to our community

I suspect that one of the reasons a lot of organizers feel uncomfortable about writing a code of conduct is that they don’t want to seem authoritarian or impose some kind of external, top-down moral code. That’s a reasonable thing to be grossed out by and want to avoid, and the solution is to create a code (and action plan, and overall event) that reflects the character and spirit of your community. I love the language of the HOPE code of conduct for just these reasons: it hits the required details and frames them respectfully within the context of the creative hacker community. Likewise the dConstruct 2014 code of conduct, which is absolutely of a piece with the rest of the conference, and which includes the sort of specific contact and process information I missed in HOPE’s otherwise excellent code.

For SRCCON, we had the good fortune of working from within a community that openly values diversity and respect, so our job was to make something short and easy to understand that communicated the basics on behalf of the old hands while reassuring and welcoming new people. I found drafting a code of conduct a little nerve-wracking precisely because our community is so reasonable—I really didn’t want to let them down. But that’s a wonderful problem to have.

Not everyone will start from such a positive point. If you’re writing a code because something has gone badly wrong, or from within a community that is divided about the importance of anti-harassment policies, your job is going to be harder, because you’re both expressing the values of part of your community and helping to shape the community itself. As a member of communities that have undergone serious rifts and self-evaluations over these issues, I can only recommend that you seek advisors from underrepresented groups and people who have experience dealing with threatening or harassing behaviors in ways you find healthy and admirable.

No better moment

As long as there is harassment and abuse at conferences and other events, we’re going to need codes of conduct and processes that make them meaningful. As long as the world is full of troubles, it’s going to be a privilege to make our projects and spaces a shelter for people who want to go about their business free from abuse.

Once you decide to create a code and do it thoughtfully, you’ll find the internet overflows with resources to help you accomplish your goals, and good people who’ll offer guidance and advice. From my own experience, I can say that specificity and follow-through will make your code practical and give it teeth; humane language and a strong connection to your community will make it feel real and give it a heart. And if you’ve gotten all the way to the end of this post, you’re probably ready to begin right now.


My thanks to SRCCON colleagues Erika Owens, Ryan Pitts, Dan Sinker, and Erik Westra for their collaboration on our code of conduct, and to many other friends and colleagues for their comments on draft versions of both the code and this post, including special assists from Rose Fox and Mandy Brown. I have one hell of a village.