Lessons from a Code of Conduct

Written by Steve Fisher

August 13, 2015

“I think I just violated our code of conduct.”

The Design & Content Conference audience chuckled, but I winced as the words left my mouth. I made light of our own code of conduct. Made it into a laughing matter when it’s not. We set out to create a community that keeps each other accountable and safe. That’s no joke.

My foot-in-mouth moment pained me, but I learned something: when we're winging it, it's easy for slip-ups to slip out. And that's why our code of conduct mattered. Sure, I still made a mistake—but because I'd invested in writing our COC, discussed it with the team, and built a plan for enforcing it, it was a million times easier for me to recognize my wrong and course-correct.

If you didn’t have the code of conduct, you’d be less likely to notice those little things, or to see how they add up to issues.

Our approach to our code of conduct was prepared, communicated, and part of the overall experience. We made it clear from the opening of the event that we should look out for each other and that a violation of the code would be taken seriously by our team. We were prepared to have follow-up conversations, file incident reports, eject code violators, or contact local authorities. We believe it is our responsibility as event organizers to create a culture of safety, respect, and kindness.

Even the best planned experience can be messy, but without established guidelines, the mess can take over. A clear code of conduct that is enforced offers a framework to make decisions and offer compassion. It moves us beyond opinions and best intentions to agreeing to move forward together.

Here are some of the steps we took to make things clear.

We had a code of conduct

This may seem like common sense, but codes of conduct are absent at many events because many argue that they don’t work, don’t stop inappropriate behaviour, and make event hosts more liable than they can afford. We’d rather have road signs in place and continue to point to them throughout the event than assume that people know the way or what to do if they get hurt or lost. In moments of distress it can be difficult to make decisions and find your way. Having a clear code, volunteers that are visible and understand what to do, and regular reminders are all good road signs. Those signs are the first step to sending the message to our attendees that we care about their safe passage and that someone is ready to help them.

Codes of conduct definitely aren’t perfect or The Answer, but they’re the start of a conversation that matters. Our insurance company was thrilled that we had a code of conduct and saw it as part of working towards creating a safer environment.

We wrote about it and talked about it

Saying things out loud and writing them down make them far more real for you and for those attending an event. We sent out messages via our event registration system reminding people about our code. We engaged with people on social media, reminded them a few days prior to the event, and—maybe most importantly—talked about it in our opening remarks and throughout the event. Here’s a video and transcript from the event.

Honestly we are just thrilled that we are all here together. So when we talk about on the website that we are better together, we really do mean that and we've already started to experience that over the last couple of days. We had a panel with the Style & Class group on Tuesday night. We had the workshops yesterday. I'd like to give a big hand to all of the people that ran the workshops. Thank you so much.


We do have just a few things we need to take care of first and then we're going to dive right into our presentations.

A big deal here and we'll get to a specific piece of this later, though, is safety. We want you all to feel safe and included in this. We have a code of conduct that everybody that's here had to agree to to attend. In case you didn't read that, you should probably go to the website read it at some point, but if I could sum it up, it's that we all need to take care of each other, we need to feel safe. Inclusion is important. So regardless of age, race, gender, anything, everyone should feel welcome. Just as a way of us agreeing to that, could we give another round of applause?


Staff t-shirts. Can't miss them. So if you need something, anything at all, if you have a question or a comment or concern, look for one of us in the red t-shirts. There's a bunch around. Don't hesitate, complaints, kind words, come find us.

Yeah, so this is the number.  And at the other end of this number is one of our volunteers, Shannon, and you can call this number at any time if you're feeling unsafe or if you see someone that you're concerned about. We want to make sure you're taken care of. You can be anonymous when you do this, or you can give your name and they'll just interact with you and make sure that everything is taken care of, whether that's incident report or just helping a situation to resolve. We do take this very, very seriously and so if you are violating our code of conduct, that can mean ejection from the event.

Let's take care of each other here. We want this to be a positive, fun thing.


It was and is important to us that the code of conduct be emphasised, but also seen as a totally normal part of the event. It’s not something to mention once in an email and then never mention again. It’s the start of the conversation, not the end of it.

We had a team

Every volunteer was made known to the attendees and speakers so that it would be easier to connect with someone if the need arose. We provided a help line and introduced the person who would answer. If you’re going to chose someone to answer a help line ensure that they can truly empathize and have experience dealing with harassment. It was intentional to have Shannon as the help line contact as she had training and experience through her work with Hollaback Vancouver.

We had resources and a plan

Our event producer, Erik Westra, helped create a lot of open source safety documents with SRCCON which we utilized at DCC as well. They are available for use under creative commons. These are things like incident report forms, safety action plans, and even training guides for our volunteers on how to handle various situations.

A couple of useful documents to have on hand:

We enforced it

I think mostly because we were so open about creating an environment of safety and inclusion, we didn’t have any major incidents, but we did have some minor ones. We addressed each one as a team as soon as we became aware of them. We had conversations with the people involved. These aren’t easy conversations, but it would have been a betrayal of the community to ignore them.

Sometimes these tough conversations came with moments of learning and growth. Sometimes they were just shitty, but just as important.

Creating an Environment of Safety and Inclusion

We should all feel safe to be part of an event, but that’s not always the case. As a community and as an industry, we’re making progress, but there’s still so much work to be done. Making a code of conduct part of an event’s ethos is a step in a better direction.

I regret that moment on stage when I flippantly undercut the weight we placed on our code of conduct. It’s not a joke. Conversations about safety are serious. Many of us don’t know what it’s like for harassment to be part of our lives. But many of us do. We need to plan events that change that. I hope as a community we can continue to figure this out together and truly build communities that are safe for everyone.