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How Codes of Conduct Encourage Best Behavior at Technology Conferences

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Technology can be a great equalizer, but unfortunately many venues still suffer from the typical challenges that accompany a diversification of power: harassment, bullying, and general bad behavior. Technology conferences have had their share of those problems. Thankfully, many good organizations are getting behind the idea of encouraging best behavior by instituting codes of conduct. Review a sample code of conduct and learn what makes a good, complete one, why you should want one at the next conference you attend, and why they matter.
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Codes of conduct are simple statements, laying out what behavior a community expects of its members and what behaviors will not be tolerated. Particularly for conferences, codes of conduct can be useful in creating baseline expectations. Why would conferences require a code of conduct? Because conferences are ad-hoc communities, with people gathering for only short periods of time to interact in very different ways than they usually do.

The concept of a code of conduct is relatively new, at least for conferences. If you look at the recent history of technology conferences (as well as conferences for other audiences), organizations only really started discussing the option of implementing codes of conduct around 2010. Over the past several years, a growing number of conferences have adopted such policies.

What's the Value of a Code of Conduct?

Codes of conduct draw lines in the sand, stating the behaviors that a particular community will not tolerate. There is a long history of problems at conferences, including some very visible issues at technology conferences. These incidents have included harassing behaviors, sexual assaults, and even controversies regarding refusal to include individuals in a conference community who have already proven themselves to be threats to others' safety.

Melissa Chavez, an organizer of the Open Source Bridge conference, sees the value of a code of conduct as multi-part: “Having a code of conduct is the first step in showing speakers and attendees that organizers are thinking specifically about them. A code of conduct is the listing of a set of behaviors that will and won't be tolerated, and it makes sure people know that there will be consequences if they don't abide by the rules. It is to ensure safety and respect for everyone, so that even the newest or most marginalized in the community are being looked out for and will feel comfortable attending.”

Even as many communities have embraced codes of conduct, it has become clear that not everyone is automatically onboard. For certain audiences, defining the value of a code of conduct can seem difficult. Common arguments against such policies often include the suggestion that conference organizers can depend on the common sense of their attendees. Any conference organizer who has put together an event with an open bar will know that common sense and good intentions don't actually make for the best behavior.

But a code of conduct's key value goes beyond dictating the rules of a given community. Rather, a code of conduct creates a safe space for people who may be in the minority. As Ashe Dryden, a consultant specializing in diversity, puts it in her Codes of Conduct 101 & FAQ, “The people most affected by harassing or assaulting behavior tend to be in the minority and are less likely to be visible. As high-profile members of our communities, setting the tone for the event up front is important. Having visible people [in positions] of authority advocate for a safe space for them goes a long way.” More people feel welcome at a conference that makes the effort to create a safe space for them.

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