Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen?

Back in 2015 I had a public argument with Jared Spool about the purpose and use of a Code of Conduct 1)Rachel Nabors also had a similar argument with Jared Spool, which can be found at “You literally cannot pay me to speak without a code of conduct“, and which covers the basics better than I do.  The crux of that conversation was: a code of conduct doesn’t guarantee an event will be safe, but gives an illusion of safety. This may cause legal or liability issues for the con. And if a con has had limited “events”, then it must be safe, so you can trust us to run a good con.

Or to put it differently, “You don’t need to watch us, because we’re watching out for you.”

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, who watches the watchmen?

Anyone who’s been abused or harassed (and frankly, that’s most women, LGBT and minority members of IT) said, and continue to say, that organizations cannot be trusted to be transparent and forthright of their own accord.

Frankly, I hoped we’d never have to put the argument to the test. But here we are: Lynn Boyden was harassed by an individual at the IA Summit, and has been working with the IA Summit (and now the IA Conference) committee to resolve the complaint.  It has been a nightmare so painful she released an open letter to the IA Institute about it.

This resulted in a lot of badly handled communication by the IA Institute. It has resulted in hot debate in most places that IAs congregate, and a petition to have the president removed2)It may have also ironically resulted in a bump in IA membership as people have re-registered or registered for the first time specifically so they could have a voice in the next set of elections.

The IA Institute’s president has published a letter to the membership  outlining her take on what’s going on. 3)The IA Institute’s letter noted that there is a legal risk to a code of conduct, but not the way that Jared predicted. The complainant is not the one threatening a lawsuit, but the harasser is.

The failure, to be clear, is in both a lack of clear procedures and governance behind the code(s) of conduct. It’s not enough to have a Code of Conduct; the steps to render a complaint have to be usable 4)The 2018 IA Summit CoC required someone who was harassed to find a URL on their badge, type that URL in, go down to the second paragraph for contact with the co-chairs, then email them directly., the organization has to train their staff on how to follow up 5)Discussions I’ve had with volunteers from the 2018 event indicate that volunteer safety training was rejected due to the cost., and the Code of Conduct has to be clear on what the consequences are 6)The current IAC 2019 Code of Conduct states “If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the co-chairs and staff may take any action they deem appropriate, including but not limited to warning the offender or requesting the offender to remove themselves from the conference with no refund.” Which is some small comfort if you get an opportunity to report before the con ends, but maybe not so much after. Contrast with Wiscon’s Code of Conduct which outlines procedures for before, during, and after events, including harassers known to the community that may have not even registered yet.. And then the conference has to make good on their stated Code of Conduct 7)The IA Conference committee, of all the groups involved, appears to have had the most positive influence on the results. As stated in the IA Institute’s letter, they did institute a ban against the individual referenced and told the IA Institute “if [the IA Institute] did not take over the conference with the ban in place, then we would lose support from these influential community members and the 2019 IAC chairs would walk out.” Things unraveled during the Conference’s transfer of ownership from the IA Foundation to the IA Institute.. If the organization can’t follow up, or worse, can’t agree on how to follow up, then (to Jared’s point) the Code of Conduct is rendered worthless.

The situation is clearly not resolved, and frankly, I don’t expect it will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction until the smoke clears, if at all.

And it doesn’t solve the fact that there are still assholes in our community who think it’s OK to not just act unprofessionally in professional settings, but to grope, harass, and assault women at our conferences. And we’re not just talking about one, or two, because harassers are like rats… if you’ve seen one run across your kitchen floor, there’s at least ten more that you just don’t know about.

The problem with missing stairs is that it’s impossible to know who all the missing stairs are, no matter how deep your back channel.  The problem with harassers and assaulters is that there’s always new ones spawning.

So who watches the watchmen?

If nothing else comes to pass from the IA Summit/Conference/Foundation/Institute (mis)handling of this harassment report, one thing is clear: the industry now knows the answer to this question.

We do. We, the customers, speakers, volunteers, and members of the IA community, watch the conference organizers and harassers. As this incident illustrates, we have no choice. Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

We no longer consider a Code of Conduct to be a “feature”. As the UIE points out in their article on Kano models, things that began as delighters quickly shift to basic expectations, then to hard requirements. If you don’t have a Code of Conduct, many of us will not attend. If you can’t enforce your Code of Conduct, we won’t just avoid your conference, we’ll let each other know your conference is unsafe.

So let’s talk attendee requirements:

  • We require codes of conduct with clear transparent guidelines and workflows because we are not so stupid that we believe all your attendees share the same definition of “professional”. The phrases “Be professional” and “Be good to each other” don’t work on harassers.
  • We then measure — individually, or as a group in this case — your organization against how well you adhere to your own code. Conferences need to enforce their codes of conduct.
  • When your actions as conference runners suggest that you are protecting the harassers, whether it’s because “he only gets that way when he’s drunk” or because “he’s a big name” or because “he’ll sue us”, we will publicly and loudly make it known that you value a harasser more than the entire population of women (or minorities or LGBT members) at your con. We require you to prioritize safety.
  • Where our personal circumstances will allow, we will step up locally, running for office or helping organizations shape their Codes of Conduct. We will not, however, sign up to voluntarily reorganize your own personal shitshow. Con runners should be taking on the bulk of this work.

Our goal is simple: we want to be safe. We want events, meetings, and employers to prioritize our safety. We want you to spend money on our safety. We want harassers to experience consequences, so that they do not harass again. We want them to lose the opportunity to harass again. We want them in-your-face aware of what will happen if they harass a first time.

We want the assholes out.

We don’t want conferences to fail, and we don’t want to be harassed or assaulted.

Con runners, event runners, we know you can do this.

We’re not just asking you to write better codes of conduct that go beyond “be professional” or “be good to each other”. We’re asking you to put your money where your mouth is: train your staff, prioritize safety, switch to lawyers who prioritize safety if you have to.

The buyer has no choice but to beware; we will vote with our feet and give money to conferences that weed out the predators.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, who watches the watchmen? Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

Notes   [ + ]

1.Rachel Nabors also had a similar argument with Jared Spool, which can be found at “You literally cannot pay me to speak without a code of conduct“, and which covers the basics better than I do
2.It may have also ironically resulted in a bump in IA membership as people have re-registered or registered for the first time specifically so they could have a voice in the next set of elections.
3.The IA Institute’s letter noted that there is a legal risk to a code of conduct, but not the way that Jared predicted. The complainant is not the one threatening a lawsuit, but the harasser is.
4.The 2018 IA Summit CoC required someone who was harassed to find a URL on their badge, type that URL in, go down to the second paragraph for contact with the co-chairs, then email them directly.
5.Discussions I’ve had with volunteers from the 2018 event indicate that volunteer safety training was rejected due to the cost.
6.The current IAC 2019 Code of Conduct states “If a participant engages in harassing behavior, the co-chairs and staff may take any action they deem appropriate, including but not limited to warning the offender or requesting the offender to remove themselves from the conference with no refund.” Which is some small comfort if you get an opportunity to report before the con ends, but maybe not so much after. Contrast with Wiscon’s Code of Conduct which outlines procedures for before, during, and after events, including harassers known to the community that may have not even registered yet.
7.The IA Conference committee, of all the groups involved, appears to have had the most positive influence on the results. As stated in the IA Institute’s letter, they did institute a ban against the individual referenced and told the IA Institute “if [the IA Institute] did not take over the conference with the ban in place, then we would lose support from these influential community members and the 2019 IAC chairs would walk out.” Things unraveled during the Conference’s transfer of ownership from the IA Foundation to the IA Institute.

Author: Anne Gibson

Anne Gibson is Senior UX Designer and general troublemaker for a big/small technical company outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She's an editor and writer at The Interconnected. She is also published at A List Apart and The Pastry Box, and publishes short fiction when she's not persuading the terriers to stop wrecking things.