Codes of Conduct – a call for calm, clarity and common sense | John V. Petersen
Much has been discussed recently on Twitter, blogs and other outlets about the need for all conferences to have a code of conduct. As a general matter, I avoid any conclusion that states a specific prescriptive device is suitable in all situations. I view conferences as businesses and I respect their right to run their business as they see fit. As consumers, we can vote with our feet if we feel that there isn’t a good value proposition of if there is something morally objectionable with a conference. As with all things, this is an intensively personal decision. Conferences however, have to be allowed some flexibility. And let’s be candid, just as not all men are pigs, not a single conference I’m aware of, regardless of whether they have a code of conduct or not, solicits bad behavior from its participants. Forget the moral issues – that would just be bad business.
As a general matter, let me put my cards on the table. I don’t believe a conference’s worth rises or falls on the presence of a code of conduct. Such a code is merely made of words on a page. The real question is whether there is a culture of mutual respect and consideration. You don’t need a code of conduct for that.
A recent case is the Columbus, OH conference StirTrek. This conference has gone on for years, successfully – without incident. They do their best to be inclusive. As for female representation amongst speakers, I think StirTrek is well above average. There have been no incidents ala PyCon. And guess what, StirTrek as of today, doesn’t have a code of conduct. StirTrek has something much more important – a dedicated board that fosters a culture of respect. The same goes for my friend Mike Eaton’s KalamazooX conference that focuses on soft skills. With that background, I ask folks to keep a level head about this issue and not paint all conferences and all people with the same brush.
As some of you know, I’m a software developer and a lawyer. I’ve seen many of the codes of conduct and I find the longer, more verbose ones are largely unworkable. They miss important items and contradict in some areas. The longer ones fall into the trap of being more than codes. They stray into the area of regulation. Keep in mind that no code or legal document is perfect. We also have to be mindful of the fact that conferences are put on by dedicated volunteers for the benefit of the community. Yes, we often pay hundreds of dollars to attend, but if we continually attend the same show, we must be recognizing the value. And in fact, we often ascribe the value of a conference to the conduct of its leadership. I ask that people remember that – the people that run a show and their conduct over years of running a show. Does it really matter whether or not a code of conduct exists or existed? I respect the right of people to expect a code of conduct. I also respect the right of conferences to have or not have a stated code of conduct. People, you have a remedy – don’t attend a conference if it is morally objectionable. Where you step over the line is when you demand, to the point of publically bullying conferences to have codes of conduct. Out of fear, some conferences may oblige. But is that what you really want? Don’t you want to change hearts and minds? The irony is that many of the public bullying we see is the type of conduct these same people would find objectionable under their ideal code of conduct.
And finally, how many of you that are demanding codes of conduct would be willing to forgo alcohol at a conference? How many of you attend the all too famous GitHub Drink-Ups. The fact is, alcohol is often a major part of the problem. The other part of the problem is either people who cannot, for one reason or another, handle the situation and get out of control. I’ve been around long enough to know the last thing on anybody’s mind when at a conference social function is whether there is a code of conduct and whether we are in compliance with such document.
OK.. To that, I offer this simple paragraph as a model code. It is small and it balances the equities between conferences and participants. It is merely a statement of expected behavior with a nod to enforcement. Don’t look for details of enforcement. Every situation is different. You’re all adults. You learned right from wrong early on (at least, you were supposed to). You don’t need a piece of paper to empower you. That said, I can understand why there is a feeling that perhaps, there should be an affirmative statement by conferences as to what is acceptable behavior. Personally, I don’t need it, but it is a personal decision and others may differ in their views. Keep this in mind as well – the longer and more specific you make things, the more maintenance it requires. It’s kind of like software!! I think the words below work and provide the kind of assurances any reasonable person would want. Then again, I wrote it and I may be a bit biased!! Note – I don’t get wrapped up in distinctions between attendees, sponsors, volunteers, etc. The code below applies to EVERYONE at the show. That includes staff. Another thing – if a violation amounts to a crime, call the police. Or, contact the venue. The last sentence clarifies that. What is “good conduct”? It’s kind of like pornography. Justice Potter Stewart 50 years ago said: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
Anyone affiliated with this Conference (The “Participant”) is expected to conduct themselves in a civil manner & treat any other Participant with mutual respect and consideration. (The “Standard of Conduct”). The Standard of Conduct is defined by what is deemed to be generally accepted by the Conference; the Venue; the Venue’s own standards of conduct, rules and regulations; and any legal authority of which the Venue or Participant is subject. Only timely and directly reported violations of the Standards of Conduct with sufficient factual details of the violation to the Conference, upon investigation if warranted, may result in sanctions including, but not limited to expulsion of the offending party/parties without recourse. Sanctions imposed under this paragraph shall be adjudicated and determined in the sole discretion of the Conference. Nothing in this paragraph should be interpreted to interfere or discourage with a Participant’s right to contact the Venue and/or Law Enforcement directly and in such a case, the Conference shall fully cooperate with the Venue and Law Enforcement.