It may seem a little obvious, but it’s difficult to have and use a code of conduct if you have no organization at all. Informal and ad hoc groups need to go through a different process than ones with a formal structure. If you have a formal hierarchy, that will help you answer these next questions. If not, the group will need to spend more effort to decide who’s responsible, how and why.

When we create and enforce a code of conduct, we’re not the police, a court system, trained detectives, or any higher legal authority. We’re acting with the consent and participation of a community we belong to. Thoughtful consideration of this issue will help you maintain the code of conduct and get the most out of it.

What’s your role in the community?

When you’re interested in introducing a code of conduct to an organization, consider your standing. Someone in a formal leadership role may be able to declare that the group is going to do this, and everyone else will follow. A new organization can go right ahead. Some existing groups will have a set policy for taking on new recommendations that everyone goes through. In open source these can involve submitting a bug to a bug tracker. If there’s a legal organization and a governing board, the board may need to take it up as a proposal.

For other community members, we need to work on building awareness and consensus. Attempting to introduce new rules for a community where you don’t have a visible leadership role may lead to a hostile backlash. Even with formal authority, a rush to change things can make it harder. Find out who in your group is ready to take this step, and what concerns the others have. Common fears include uncertainty about the existence of harmful behavior in the community, and a belief that people will be penalized arbitrarily and without recourse.

When we lack the authority or support to make changes otherwise, the absence of a detailed and enforced code of conduct is a valid reason to withdraw participation.

Who has the authority to implement new policies?

This may a single leader or set of people in fixed roles, a governance committee, or a non-profit or corporate board. Communication is an important element, too: who is able to post announcements and new documentation? For less formal groups, the authority may come down to who has the ability to communicate information in a way other people will pay attention to. Or who can create a sphere of interaction where everyone consents to follow the policy, as in a sub-track or code sprint at a large umbrella event.

Who has the authority to enforce penalties for people’s behavior?

In addition to the people who can implement a policy change, this could include other community members who lead meetings or working groups, and would need to be involved when someone is no longer allowed to participate. It may also include moderators who oversee online communication.

That’s the formal kind of authority. Informally, you can find out pretty fast whether you have the necessary trust and respect to enforce a code of conduct when you make a decision and people do or don’t go along with it. Disagreements on this topic can cause a group to split or fork.

When informal and “leaderless” groups need to make hard decisions about how to handle someone’s behavior, the people who have the most community trust and respect will have to work together with victims to decide on an appropriate outcome. Maintaining privacy is often more complicated for these groups. You’ll need to establish boundaries about who needs to be involved.

Always work to limit information sharing outside of the immediate response group, unless you have explict permission from everyone: victims, reporters, and accused.

How does this differ from your technical leadership?

Technical communities are often led by people with technical expertise, and with significant experience as contributors. This may be because they were the founders. That means the leaders have a good understanding of the main work and activities of the community. However, this does not automatically translate to the experience and skills needed to manage the interactions between a diverse group of people. Code of conduct work can feel like unnecessary overhead that the leaders have to juggle when they’d rather be fixing bugs.

In a small community, the short-term solution is for the leaders to start implementing policies and learning the necessary skills, while also mentoring participants who can eventually step up to join them in leading this aspect of the community. Larger communities may already have people who could step into the role, and in that case it makes sense to specialize.

If you have a technical leadership committee, don’t automatically make them the new code of conduct response team. Decide as a group which of you are best equipped to take on that work.

Who can report an issue?

We document the scope of the code of conduct to define who the participants are. Our efforts need to fully reflect that, regardless of someone’s social standing or level of organizational knowledge. Make sure your reporting system is accessible to anyone who might need to use it and that you’ll be able to respond to newcomers as well as more established members. If participation in your group is limited to a formal membership, decide what you’ll do if someone outside the group reports a problem with one of your members.

What happens when leaders are the ones causing harm?

Unfortunately, both accidental and deliberate harm can be caused by our leaders, and even the people responsible for enforcing a code of conduct. This is why it’s important that more than one person is part of the response team, and that all significant decisions come from the group and not an individual. It’s crucial that we avoid conflicts of interest: if you’re the one being reported, recuse yourself! The same goes if it’s your partner or close family member.

We can show good leadership when we’re accused of harm by stepping back and allowing the group to work. Don’t use your influence to try to force a particular outcome.

For the rest of the response team, it’s very important that you stick to your process.

Is the group or community responsible to other organizations?

Some common situations are open source projects with fiscal sponsors, chapters of national and international organizations, and rotating conference leadership for events that travel to different cities. Find out what their expectations and guidelines are. They may have a minimum code of conduct requirement, expect you to forward all reports to them, or some other arrangement.

Some participants may also be mandatory reporters. This is a person who is legally obliged to report certain kinds of abuse to the police or welfare agencies. In most cases, someone with this responsiblity will already be aware of it. It may have an impact on what kinds of code of conduct issues they can participate in resolving.