How will our Code of Conduct improve our harassment handling?

Warning for mentions of self-harm.

This is an edited version of an email I wrote to other Geek Feminism bloggers following adoption of the Geek Feminism Code of Conduct and during the drafting of Mary’s postmortem, in response to some concerns that we have not in fact improved anything over our previous ad hoc processes, particularly in cases where there are fears a harasser will threaten or commit self-harm in response to any consequences for their harassment.

Here are the differences I believe our Code of Conduct will make to handling harassment incidents in our community:

We’re removing harasser leverage.

Not strictly Code of Conduct, but code-adjacent: we’ve been working to eliminate single points of failure in our social and technical infrastructure, and are getting an established ethic in place of treating those as a problem both for logistical and for potential harassment/abuse reasons.

Our formal reporting process allows us to respond faster.

Previously, knowledge about the harasser had to work its way through back-channels. Relevant decision makers could go unaware of the situation for months, and the victim’s privacy was reliant the discretion of an expanding group of people.

Now, there is a clear reporting process that allows people with concerns to reach the people empowered to act on those concerns all at once, in confidence.

A Code of Conduct focuses the conversation on the specific incident in question.

Without a Code and anti-abuse team in place, any harassment situation is a conflict over what is and isn’t acceptable in the community. At least one person — the harasser — thinks what they’re doing is cool. Getting them to stop isn’t just about enforcing community standards — it’s also about establishing them.

With a Code in place, everyone has agreed ahead of time that these are the rules. Whether the harasser personally feels that it’s okay to — say — hug people without consent, they are bound by a harassment policy that forbids it. It takes the conflict out of the realm of values and concepts — “is it okay to hug people without consent?” — and into the realm of facts — “is this person hugging people without consent?”

A public Code of Conduct will help hold us accountable.

Another way that Codes of Conduct make communities safer is that public commitments help hold organizations accountable to their values. We have made a public commitment not to tolerate harassment, and to do whatever we need to do to prevent it — including removing people. That, again, takes the question away from general community values and into the specifics of the particular case in front of us.

None of us want someone to go hurt themselves, but none of us want harassers around, either. We’ve now publicly stated that the latter is our first priority in harassment cases. That moves the conversation from “is it okay to remove someone if they might hurt themselves?” to “is there any way to mitigate the risk that this person we have to remove might hurt themselves?”

That public commitment is also going to help inoculate us against second-guessing in other cases — like if we have to remove a beloved member of the community, or someone who we feel bad for because they are socially awkward, have no other support network, are going through a rough time, etc. I’m not saying it’s going to eliminate all difficulty or make us completely heartless to a person’s circumstances. But we’ve now put up our community’s reputation as collateral, which is going to provide a strong incentive to stick to our stated principles.

Our investigating process protects victims from the harasser and their friends.

Anyone who’s been part of a community that had to vote or consense on removing somebody knows that those discussions can flirt with community-wrecking disaster. If we didn’t have a process and I had to tell all the bloggers that, say, Liz was harassing me (she’s not, but if she was), fear of the ensuing drama would be a strong incentive against coming forward. I would be inclined to keep it to back-channels until I was confident I had enough support to get her removed and not get blamed for being mean to her/starting drama.

The anti-abuse team is empowered to keep my report in confidence and act on it — without me having to publicly name my harasser and potentially endure the whole community debating my safety in front of me (and my harasser).  That would make me feel more comfortable coming forward sooner.

There’s still a possibility that people might choose to leave the community over an anti-abuse decision, or debate it in their own spaces. But the decision will get made without a lengthy and potentially hurtful public discussion, and we’re not going to have it rehashed in GF spaces after the fact. Victims of harassment do not have to fear that their safety or integrity will be a subject of public discussion or debate within GF.

The Anti-Abuse Team can move faster than the community as a whole

Related to the above: the Anti-Abuse Team is going to be able to move faster because we’ve already explicitly been empowered to make the decision, and can do so without having to engage the entire community in a very difficult and probably painful discussion.

The new process protects those who have to interact with a harasser outside of GF.

If Alice has to work with Barb and Barb is expelled for harassment, whatever Alice’s personal opinions on the matter, she can honestly say that she wasn’t involved in the decision (if Alice is on the anti-abuse team, she can recuse herself from Barb’s case). If Barb holds it against Alice anyway, then the fact that a formal process was followed gives Alice a much more credible way to describe the problem if she chooses to take it up with her supervisor, or the leadership of another community.

It also takes Alice out of the conflict between Barb and Geek Feminism so that it’s not an interpersonal conflict between two employees/community members (which is likely to be perceived as the fault of both parties), but rather a conflict between Barb and a third party (Geek Feminism) that Barb is unprofessionally/inappropriately bringing into the workplace or into the other community.


 

At the end of the day, our process is only as good as the people who implement it, and it won’t solve everything. But it can make it easier and safer for victims to come forward, and improve the speed and quality of our responses. It will also help protect both victims and the community from some of the pain and ugliness that poor harassment handling can cause.

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