No, I don’t trust your conference without a Code of Conduct

The UX twitter streams are buzzing again this week regarding safety at conferences. And once again there are those who say we need better codes of conduct and those who say a code of conduct doesn’t help.

There are a few things I want to clarify in case y’all are still of the opinion that Codes of Conduct are a bad idea.

I live in a well-to-do neighborhood and work for a trustworthy organization, and every day I do at least 20 things to avoid being raped or assaulted. Most men don’t have to think about their basic safety from minute to minute (especially cis white men) but the majority of the rest of us are actively vigilant about it.

So when I say, “this is what safety looks like” my experience counts. And when I say, “I get to judge if you look safe” my experience counts. And if I say “you don’t look safe” even though you did a ton of work to be safe that I can’t see, well, I’m the target audience. You meet my needs or you don’t get my participation.

A. I don’t feel safe

The default assumption about a tech space is that it is not safe and welcoming. There, I said it. If I show up at your conference my default expectation is that I will get belittled, looked down on, and potentially emotionally, verbally, or physically harassed. I will be stared at. I will probably be pinched. I will be unhappy about that.

It’s your job as the one running the conference to cut the chances that will happen. I do not expect a 100% success rate but I do expect you to try.

B. I don’t believe you when you say your conference is safe.

I assume that if a conference is bragging about a perfect safety record, it means the attendees who were harassed didn’t know how to report it or didn’t trust the organizers, not that it was safe. Why? Because years of sci-fi fandom have taught me that the front channel of Con communication doesn’t know what’s common knowledge in the back channel (aka “attendees talking”) and nothing in IT has disproven that theory.

I may even assume that if an event has *no* back channel mentions that the convention company is paying victims off to be quiet. See “Bill Cosby”.

C. Safety requires enforcing good behavior from bad people

I look for *the enforcement of* a Code of Conduct as an indicator that an event is “potentially safer than the default”.

Measuring enforcement is very difficult, but good news: those of us affected talk. A lot. If you screw up, we’ll know.

D. You can’t enforce what you don’t communicate.

It is very difficult to enforce a crowd’s behavior if the expectations for behavior are not clearly communicated. Especially if one expects to also have a positive impression on one’s customers.
On the back of every MLB baseball ticket, the league prints the Code of Conduct. It includes rules for fans that range from “do not enter the field” to “foul or abusive language.” Consequences (ejection and possible loss of season tickets) are clearly spelled out.

A video spells out the code of conduct before every game if you miss it on the ticket. Courses of action to take if you’re being harassed or see a problem are described. In Citizens Bank Park there’s a sign in the outfield that says “text XXXXX with your location if you’re experiencing a problem.”

This does not mean all 30,000 fans are on their best behavior. It means I know I can report a problem, I know how to report it, it’s convenient to do, and I know what the consequences will be for the harasser. Not only that, the potential troublemakers know what is a problem and what will happen.

That’s safety.

If 30,000 people didn’t know whether they could smoke or climb onto the field or scream profanities – or that they would be rejected as a result – the stadium would have a lot of trouble identifying and resolving problems. The first time a new fan tried to enter the field and got ejected, there would be anything from a heated argument to a lawsuit. Enforcement cannot happen without transparent communication.

Baseball isn’t the only example. Worldcon clearly states “if someone tells you “no” or asks you to leave them alone, your business with them is done.” Because the expectation is set, it can be enforced. There’s no room for arguing “I didn’t know that was considered harassment”.

E. A code of conduct gives you the opportunity to earn some of my trust

I use the *existence* of a code of conduct as a shorthand way to identify locations that *might* enforce their code of conduct and be safe enough that I can enjoy the event. I also use the *existence* of a security guard at the mall as shorthand that I might not get mugged.

In neither case does the show of security mean real security is present. I could still get mugged. It’s possible the guard might watch and do nothing. But in general, places that look safe are safer than places that look unsafe. And the default is still “unsafe”.

If you try to make a space safer, I reward you with some value of trust that you mean what you say.

I will read your code of conduct and if it looks like a cut/paste job you didn’t bother to customize it for your space or event, you lose my trust. If it protects harassers, you lose my trust.

F. The Code of Conduct is not the goal.

Do not believe for a second that I am “settling” for a code of conduct as the safety mechanism. I still have the back channel to help me confirm that a location is safe. I have my own instincts. I have the ability to dial 911. I have the ability to read and judge a code of conduct to determine if it meets my personal criteria for safety. And I have the knowledge that conferences don’t want me to smear their name if they screw up. It’s in your best interest to enforce your code of conduct, because I already don’t trust you. If you put me in an unsafe situation, there are consequences.

G. Trust is earned

Because I do not trust either your con or your con’s attendees, the burden to establish trust is on you. It’s not my responsibility to reset that default. Nor is it in my best interests to trust you until you prove yourself trustworthy.

A clear, transparent, well-written code of conduct is step 1 of winning my trust. Enforcing that code of conduct *with the biggest burden affecting those who do wrong* is step 2. If there is a step 3, it’s that you communicate to the industry what you did, why, and what you might do differently in the future.

H. All or nothing

Steps 1 and 2 are a package. You don’t get to talk about how you’ll enforce my safety until we agree on a definition of what that is. And to do that, you need to *write it down*. If you don’t like the term Code of Conduct, that’s fine, call it something else. But know in the back channel that’s the term we’re using.

The MLB puts theirs on their website, the back of the tickets, signs in the ballpark, and announce it at the beginning of every game. They keep the vast majority of 30,000 people in line that way. You can do at least half that.

If you refuse to do Step 1 because you think it’s security theater without step 2, congratulations. You’re right. It’s security theater if it isn’t enforced. But since you can’t enforce rules that don’t exist, you either pony up the Code of Conduct or I assume you’re just as bad as the people who refuse to do Step 1 because pinching a woman’s butt is their God-given right.

I can’t tell the well meaning people who just think they are being inconvenienced from the assholes, so you all go in the same bucket.

In other words, if you want my attendance at your event and my money, you need to win my trust, first by having a code of conduct I can read to determine if you’re worth a shot, then by enforcing your code of conduct with clear effective tactics that punish the abusers and not the victims.


I’ve told you that by default I don’t trust you.
I’ve told you steps you can take to begin to win my trust.
I’ve told you that a code of conduct is just the beginning of the process to win my trust.
I’ve told you that doing these things is the only way to begin to win my trust and they’re not negotiable.

If you really care about both my safety and the success of your event, you’ll stop arguing with women and minorities about what “safe” means. You’ll actively shut up, listen, and take steps to win that trust.

Any other action puts you back in the asshole bucket. It also ensures a strong chance I and the rest of the not-cis-white-male UX community will not be coming to your event.

If you want our business as a conference holder, you work under our rules, not yours. What makes us feel safe is for us to dictate, not you.