Perhaps you’ve seen that little addendum on a conference registration or at the bottom of a Meetup page. Maybe you flipped passed it while skimming paperwork at your new job before signing off on fifteen pages of legal jargon with an electronic signature.
Those familiar with them may think of Codes of Conduct as standard issue these days, especially in tech spaces where talk of diversity and inclusion can be more present than actual diversity or inclusion. However, understanding the purpose a Code of Conduct serves, and how to create one that actually works for your employees, can be an important tool in creating an inclusive community where everyone can thrive and do their best work.
What is a Code of Conduct?
According to Ashe Dryden, long-time programmer, diversity advocate, and founder of AlterConf, a Code of Conduct is simply a public statement that sets the ground rules for participation in a specific community. It could set the ground rules to attend an event, be a member of a group, or an employee at an organization. A Code of Conduct benefits all team members because, when done well, it sets clear expectations for behavior, outlines how to report violations, and enumerates the potential consequences for those who violate it. The goal is to make expectations for behavior clear so there are no surprises. Everyone knows what is permitted in your space and what isn’t, and everyone knows what happens if you don’t follow the Code.
Emily Wessel Farr is an employment lawyer in Chicago who regularly drafts Codes of Conduct for her clients. “When drafted well,” she explains, “your Code of Conduct provides your employees with a safe place to work, free from harassment, prejudice, and other major issues that threaten businesses and lose talent.” Although Codes of Conduct are sometimes viewed as wishy-washy, touchy-feely documents, Wessel Farr points out that they serve a clear business purpose. Employees who feel unsafe or harassed may leave the organization, and even if they don’t, they won’t be able to do their best work. Poor performance and high turnover are expensive, and organizations that protect bad actors will see negative consequences.
What goes into a Code of Conduct?
- According to Dryden’s post on Codes of Conduct, she describes the four essential components of the document:
- A definition of unacceptable behavior
- How the policy will be enforced
- How (and to whom) to report an incident
- Training and reference materials for staff on how to respond to incident reports
When it comes to unacceptable behavior, specificity describing expectations and defining the behavior is key. Wessel Farr, the employment lawyer, suggests digging into your company’s history for inspiration. “Codes of Conduct should address the realities of your organization. What pain points have you run across in the past? What behavior caused distraction, or worse? Have you lost employees or would-be employees because of culture?” Reflect on how your team could learn from those past experiences and use your Code of Conduct to reset employee expectations.
When creating a Code of Conduct you don’t have to start from scratch. The Conference Code of Conduct, originally from JSConf and the Ada Initiative can give you a solid foundation from which to build.
Clarity and follow-through are key
Vague terms, such as “kind” or “fair,” can undermine a Code of Conduct even if it is created with the best of intentions. Duke Greene, a coding instructor, frequently works with diverse groups of students from a wide range of backgrounds and emphasizes that defining the terms you use is key to setting clear expectations. Many people, when seeing a vague term, like “polite,” or “nice,” will interpret the directive differently. “It’s better to have no team norms at all, than to make a Code of Conduct with the assumption that all contributors share one definition of ‘niceness’,” Greene wrote on Twitter.
Since Codes of Conduct especially act to protect people and groups who have historically had less influence in the mainstream, you can’t rely on one point-of-view as your source of truth when it comes to defining the terms you use. Without an explicit definition, it’s easy for the most powerful people in a group to impose their definitions everyone else. “Be Nice” is commonly included in Codes of Conduct. However, if not specifically defined Greene says it can often devolve into “Watch your tone when reporting toxic behavior from people with more clout than you.” For your Code of Conduct to be effective, it needs to reflect voices that have often been left out of the conversation. Instead of generic, vague phrases like “Be nice,” Greene suggests using the Code of Conduct to instate certain practices like “reaction rounds” in response to a specific decision or incident. In a reaction round, each person gets the opportunity to share their reaction to a decision point. The intention is to create space for everyone’s voice to be heard. Instead of writing “All opinions are important” in your Code of Conduct, you might write, “Use Reaction Rounds to make sure every voice is heard when responding to a decision.” When your Code of Conduct outlines specific, structured behavior it will set expectations for the whole team about whose opinions matter.
Another common trap, says Wessel Farr, is to create an idealized Code of Conduct but to fail to enforce it the first time it’s tested. “It is not enough to simply draft Codes of Conduct to place in your handbook. To be effective, you must live by the Code by training your staff, re-training your staff, and disciplining those who break the rules.”
The hardest part of Codes of Conduct for many organizations is enforcement. It may feel good to write that you’ll eject someone from a conference for a violation, but it’s harder to do in practice when it’s unpopular or controversial. However, if you don’t abide by the rules you set for yourself, your Code of Conduct quickly becomes just a piece of paper and can create resentment and mixed message for acceptable behavior in your space.
“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,” says Dryden. In any organization or large group, there will always be bad actors. What matters is that your Code of Conduct prioritizes the safety of historically marginalized people over the comfort of privileged populations. Members of your group need to know that they can point to the Code of Conduct and get support from leadership in case they experience harassment or witness a violation.
Creating and publicizing your Code of Conduct
You can create your own Code of Conduct with the help of online resources like the Conference Code of Conduct, Dryden’s CoC 101, or Lam Thuy Vo's post about designing inclusive hackathons. You can also hire an employment lawyer, like Emily Wessel Farr, or consult with one on your staff.
Once it's written, you need to actively spread the word. A Code of Conduct is not a secret document, and hiding it undermines its purpose. You want everyone you work with, from fellow members of your organization, to sponsors of your conference, to guest speakers, to have read and understood your Code of Conduct. Post it on your meetup page. Require it as reading before your event. Add it to your employee handbook and review it with new hires. Post it in your space. Vo, the hackathon organizer, suggests announcing it at the top of your event page, so no one can claim that they missed it.
As we aspire to reach wider audiences with our events and build more inclusive organizations, we should be happy to welcome a huge range of experiences into the mix. With that range of experiences comes the recognition that our different backgrounds require a recommitment to clear communication, and an explicit discussion about protecting each other from harassment and mistreatment. As Dryden says about AlterConf, “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.” Helping all participants get on the same page up front about what is expected and what is considered unacceptable will help everyone have a smoother, more productive experience when working together.
Photography by Melissa Morgan Walbridge