Why a Code of Conduct is Valuable

I believe having a Code of Conduct is valuable and that every conference should have one. I wrote before about my thoughts on diversity in conferences, and I think a good code of conduct is a way to potentially have a more diverse speaker and attendee pool. It is a way to make more marginalized folks feel safer and, ideally, make a better experience for everyone.

Shouldn’t people know better?

I’ve seen the argument that a Code of Conduct ignores that fact most people are decent. That the majority of folks who do cause harm, they don’t intend it. The concern is that by writing down a list of banned behavior, we at best state the obvious and at worst imply that the average person is indecent.

In short, shouldn’t it go without saying, “Don’t be a jerk?”.

I’m willing to concede that most people are decent and mean no harm. I find that following Hanlon’s Razor makes me a less miserable and more open-minded person. In an ideal world, there would never be a need for a Code of Conduct. Everyone would be on the same page about what is appropriate behavior, and how to report inappropriate behavior. People would perfectly tune their jokes and comments to the sensitivities of their audience.

When in your life has that been the case? I was not blessed with common sense when I was born. I have spent so many years putting my foot in my mouth. In particular, I remember the time a coworker told me she was in sales and I said “Oh, so you work in recruiting.” because up to that point I had figured sales a was male-dominated, pushy profession and recruiting was more soft-skills oriented. Ooof.

Intention and impact are separate

When I made that recruiting comment, not an ounce of harm or malice was meant. But what these arguments seem to miss sometimes is that we have to look at intention AND impact. My words still could have been discouraging or frustrating for the receiver. What really solidified this for me was an example from the book Crucial Conversations:

Imagine someone is drunk and decides to drive home. During the drive they blow through a stoplight and hit someone. Did they intend to cause harm? No. Did they cause harm? Yes. No one ever drives drunk thinking “I hope I hurt someone tonight”. If we only looked at intentions we’d never be able to stop that sort of behavior.

The truth of the matter is we are all drunk drivers when it comes to social interactions, to some degree. Some of it is obliviousness, misspeaking, or a lack of natural grace. And for those folks, there should be room for gentle correction and growth. But others choose not to grow or change their behaviors.

What a Code of Conduct does is help separate the two groups more quickly. If you read the code, agreed to it, and still violated it, it is much more likely that you simply don’t care. It still may have been an honest mistake, and there is room there for that person apologizing and improving. But it is infinitely easier to identify repeat offenders when the rules are clear.

Isn’t this virtue signaling?

Another argument I’ve seen is the concern about virtue signaling. I.E. are folks creating these things not out of genuine consideration, but for the applause of their peers. That the folks pushing for these things don’t care about the results.

To me this is such a strange criticism, because it’s a criticism of intention. This is often from the same folks who feel that we should be giving the benefit of the doubt to people like me who accidentally say unkind or offensive things. Why is the benefit of the doubt not given to organizers as well? I don’t like accusing folks of virtue signaling because that implies I can accurately assess other folks’ goals and motivations. I simply can’t and it’s likely you can’t either.

Again, we should try to separate intention from impact. A poorly written code of conduct, without proper enforcement mechanisms is harmful. Totally agreed, but I personally think on average they are beneficial.

Potential benefits of a code

So what are the some potential benefits of having a code of conduct?

First, it has the debate happen before the incident. When my husband and I got married, we started a budget for our finances. This was important, because if we are going to argue about how much money was appropriate to spend on restaurants, I’d rather have the argument before the money was spent. The same is true of a community hashing out what behavior is appropriate. You don’t want to have to figure out those lines right after an incident occurs.

Second, it empowers bystanders. In The Checklist Manifesto, they talk about how checklists can help deal with a power differential. Specifically, it gave nurses more space to call out surgeons when they skipped critical safety steps before a surgery. Many of us are conflict averse, and having something clear cut to point to can help us avoid getting caught in the bystander effect.

Third, it signals care and safety. When my husband came out as trans, I started having pervasive concerns about our safety. I’m 6’2″ and 280 lbs, my personal concerns about physical violence are almost nil. But I still often flinch when I tell people I have a husband, anticipating the possibility of someone being a jerk to one of us. Thankfully this has yet to be an issue for us.

When I see that an event organizer has put in the time to call out bad behavior ahead of time, it helps me let my hair down, so to speak. It shows that they went out of their way to think about these things and that I’d likely be successful reporting any issues. I don’t have to constantly keep my guard up.

Summary

I think it’s reasonable to have concerns about folks trying to enumerate bad behaviors and potentially doing so unskillfully or thoughtlessly. But the truth of matter is you already have a default code of conduct at events, it’s just unwritten and often contradictory. It’s whatever folks can get away with. I know for me personally, I feel safer at an event when they have been clear about what behavior is unacceptable.

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