Anti-Harassment Policies and Codes of Conduct

November 27, 2015

I was a director on the PASS board back in 2012 when our having a Code of Conduct was first raised. A number of conferences had experienced bad situations, particularly around sexist behaviour, and it was very appropriate for PASS to take a stand and say “We don’t want this kind of thing to happen to PASS members.”

We ALL wanted to make sure that the PASS community was a safe community – one which people could be part of without having to worry about whether there would be an “incident”. No one wanted the PASS Summit, or a SQL Saturday, or any PASS-related event, to incur an “incident”. We considered that the only acceptable number of incidents was zero.

That said, there was a certain amount of awkwardness – particularly in the days leading up to the official discussion about the proposed Code of Conduct. There was a genuine fear about how a Code of Conduct would affect the tone of PASS events. Nobody wanted to be removed from an event because of a seemingly innocuous comment, but even more, no one wanted there to be an incident of harassment. And this fear expressed itself in awkwardness, bordering on flippancy.

As the globalisation committee (a subsection of the board including some advisors – all of whom knew about the proposed Code) sat around to discuss globalisation, the first time there was a double-entendre, instead of raising an eyebrow or saying “Oh really?” or something else, the expression of the day was “There’s a Code of Conduct violation right there…”. It was a reflection of the nervousness that people felt around what the impact would be. People wanted to maintain the informal atmosphere of the meeting, but didn’t know how to react to a double-entendre in light of the future Code of Conduct – remembering that we ALL wanted PASS to become a safer community for our members.

We don’t tolerate harassment at all. But at what point do things become harassment? At first it felt like we were trying to define it.

As an Australian, I see a certain amount of banter about New Zealanders. It goes both ways, and the jokes are apparently very similar. They joke that we treat our sheep in particular ways, and we say the same about them. In the 1980s, the Kiwi Prime Minister Robert Muldoon said that New Zealanders moving to Australia raised the average IQ of both countries, which I think is a fantastic sledge! To suggest that people leaving New Zealand must be less smart than the average Kiwi, but still smarter than the average Australian, is a beautifully crafted rib. Is it racist? By definition, perhaps – but I doubt anyone felt vilified by it.

“By definition, perhaps” was the phrase that worried me.

I knew that if we defined the Code of Conduct wrongly, then I, and many others, could easily be in breach of it. I knew that if I reacted to a double-entendre with a raised eyebrow, that could be seen as sexualising a situation. I knew that if I joked that a Tottenham fan in the room was of lower intelligence than an Arsenal fan, then that could be seen as harassment. Maybe not by the Spurs fan, but by someone else watching, who might think that I genuinely insulted them. Even to suggest that a developer has no respect of data (as many PASS presenters might suggest in a session) could be seen as unfairly assigning undesirable attributes to people. It was a concern.

So instead of raising an eyebrow, instead of reacting to any situation in my usual way, I reacted with “There’s a Code of Conduct violation right there…”. It still achieved the joke, but in a way that acknowledged my fears of what the Code might imply. It wasn’t appropriate, and I’m sorry. The correct thing to do would have been to have just bitten my tongue and ignore it. I also wasn’t the only one in that situation – I think just about everyone in the room did the same.

We all wanted a policy, but we didn’t know how it was going to affect us.

As we discussed it, we were able to work out that really what we wanted was not a Code of Conduct that defined what we allowed and what we didn’t allow, because we would never have been able to get that right. What we wanted was to adopt a stance that said “We do not tolerate harassment”, and to have a procedure for what happens if someone feels harassed. What we wanted was an Anti-Harassment Policy.

Let me express that again:

We do not tolerate harassment.

And I don’t want to define what harassment means for an individual. I don’t want to define that certain types of touching are okay and others are not. I don’t want to define that particularly types of eye-contact count as harassment. I don’t want to define the words that can be used to describe body parts (like if someone falls and says they’ve hurt their backside – do they need to be careful about the word they use?), or what counts as “acceptable swearing” at a party. If we define this, then we run the risk that someone might go right up to the defined line in harassing someone, but we haven’t provided a course of action for the victim because the harasser hasn’t broken the “Code of Conduct”.

I do want to have well-documented processes for how to react if someone feels harassed, because I want the person who feels harassed to know they have a course of action open to them.

I think a Code of Conduct should be around expected behaviour in particular situations. A Code of Conduct says that a session presenter should wear a collared shirt not a T-shirt. A Code of Conduct says that a sponsor should respect the geographic boundaries of other vendors’ booths. A Code of Conduct shouldn’t say “You must not use someone’s nationality as the subject of a joke” – because when Australia was beaten in the final of the Rugby World Cup, that’s an opportunity to rib them about it, but the principle of standing against racism is incredibly valid. If I suggest that Americans are stupid for considering that “could care less” means the same as “could not care less” – am I crossing the line? It probably depends on a lot of other factors.

Let me say it again:

I do not tolerate harassment.

I simply recognise that what some people see as harassment, others see as friendly banter. Should Bradley Ball, Joe Sack, and Buck Woody be offended about jokes regarding their names? I don’t know. That’s entirely up to them in the situation, and the context of what’s said. Sometimes they might be fine with it, other times they might not. That’s their right. No one else gets to dictate their reaction. Should Kevin Kline have been upset that I sang Happy Birthday to him loudly, in public situations, repeatedly, for a whole day? I try to monitor those situations, and back off if they seem to be getting upset. Is my detector of people’s personal lines sometimes faulty? Sadly, yes.

I do not tolerate my own harassment of others.

If you have ever felt harassed by me, I’m personally sorry and honestly regret it. I know I joke. I know I often joke at other people’s expense. But I never mean to harass.

My personal Code of Conduct varies according to the company that I’m keeping – there are times that it’s okay to point out a double-entendre, but a job interview is probably not that time. My personal Anti-Harassment Policy is not variable. I don’t tolerate harassment, and if you ever feel harassed by me, tell me. If I don’t stop (though I hopefully always do stop), then tell me again, or tell a friend of mine and get them to help me stop (because I have probably misinterpreted you – if I say ‘Oi’ to someone who calls me fat, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m feeling harassed, even though my extra kilos bothers me and I really don’t like it being pointed out).

PASS has an Anti-Harassment Policy. As the SQL community, we don’t tolerate it, and we know what to do if someone feels harassed.

Defining harassment is tough – it’s subjective, and individual. Making a stance to say “we don’t tolerate it” and “if you harass someone, here’s how we will respond” is a good thing.

Let me say that again:

The PASS community doesn’t tolerate harassment.


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. retracement

    How many Arsenal players does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: None. They are all injured…
    p.s. Nice post 🙂

  2. Rob Farley

    Ha! Thanks, Broad and Bent one.

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