What is a code of conduct?

A code of conduct is a policy used by an organization such as a conference, workplace, open source project, or event venue. At a minimum it states what behaviors are not acceptable, how the organization will enforce the policy, who the policy applies to, and how to report a code of conduct violation.

Why do you need one?

Codes of Conduct 101

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.

What does an effective code of conduct look like?

An effective code of conduct will cover:

1. A statement of intent

What values or goals does your organization have? How do those values relate to the safety of attendees?

2. Who are you working to include?

This is often given as a list of protected groups or categories: gender, race, religion, disability, and so on. In addition to groups that are covered under your local anti-discrimination laws, it may be helpful to consider characteristics like level of education or experience, nationality, immigration status, and socio-economic status. Including these elements is a welcoming signal to people who have been excluded elsewhere, and your awareness of the details is one of the ways you demonstrate accountability. See below for what’s best to leave out or handle a different way.

3. A list of specific behaviors considered inappropriate

These need to cover common types of harassment and abuse. Specifics are important because they reduce the ambiguity of these requests: it’s easier to understand and follow ‘when someone says they don’t want to talk to you, stop’ versus ‘don’t be a jerk’.

4. An open-ended list of actions the organization may take in response to those behaviors

Participants need to know the range of things that could happen: Are you going to ask everyone to leave? Permanently? Open a mediation process? These details help everyone understand you take their safety seriously, and show people who might not be acting in good faith that there will be consequences.

5. Additional expectations about participation in the organization, event, or space

You have at least one expected behavior to emphasize: you want people to tell you when there’s an incident.

Some communities have other social rules that aren’t directly about harassment, like the Recurse Center’s “No feigning suprise” and “No well-actuallys”.

6. The scope of who the policy affects

Most of our events and groups have some aspect of open participation, so we need to be clear about who’s under these policies. Does it include sponsors? Vendors providing a service?

7. Who to contact to report a violation, and how to contact them

This needs to be specific and appropriate for all of the contexts where your policy is used. Giving the name of the lead responder is preferable to a general “Code of Conduct Committee” identification.

Optional items

If there’s anything else you expect people to do, more details you can provide about your process, or outside resources they can access, include them as well.

What not to include

Some items are better to leave out of your code of conduct’s protected groups. Making political parties or beliefs such a category puts people who want to harm others on the same ground as those who are abused. For example, in the US, registering as a Democrat has a very different impact from joining the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party. In general, beliefs and behaviors should be under the unacceptable or expected behaviors sections. This includes which text editor you use, lifestyle choices, and other activities.

Religion has a special status, both legally and socially. It stays in the main category of protection because of specific histories of harm and discrimination, and because it’s something you “are” as much as something you do. On the other hand, proselytizing without an invitation is a behavior, regardless of the beliefs that contribute to it.

Also refrain from statements that are ambiguous or rely on specific cultural knowledge. “Be excellent to each other” may have all sorts of different understandings. Be careful about anything that may rely on a participant understanding the intent of the organizers — if it’s important, make it explicit.

Example codes of conduct to use

How do you share it your community?

Make time at the start of your meetings and events to talk about the code of conduct. Particpants need to hear why it’s important and what they’re expected to do.

More reading

Next steps