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How we got to our Code of Conduct

About the Code of Conduct we have today

Conference codes of conduct have been a simmering hot topic for a good couple of years now (it’s 2017 as I write). I started working at Software Acumen in 2012. We created our first code of conduct in 2014 after many months of investigation including looking at the Ada Initiative, blogs about codes of conduct, other conference codes of conduct (which I’ll call CoCs now) and speaking to people like Ashe Dryden (who, incidentally, wrote a great blog post about CoCs).

What happened that made us create a CoC?

Nothing. Well, nothing directly in front of us. We saw a growing conversation out in the events industry and the software industry that resonated with us. We’d never had an outright example of bad behaviour. At least, we don’t think we had. It would be naive to ignore the fact that things may have happened that were never brought to our attention. I hope we haven’t though.

It would be nice to think that, because all our interactions with our participants were positive and all our feedback was positive, that no one walked away feeling a bit icky or a bit let down or – far worse – violated. We may never know unless someone tells us otherwise. However, thinking we provided a safe environment wasn’t a good reason not to also provide a CoC.

We created our first CoC because we didn’t want to be reactive. Far better to have a code and an action plan* in place and never use them, than not have anything in place and be caught out.

Since then, we’ve updated our CoC 3 times. We’ve seen a misunderstanding blow up and blow away in a matter of minutes (and so not had to enact our action plan) and we’ve had to enact it once. Fortunately, that one time became a learning process for all involved.

For me, also because of the timing of other events happening in our ‘offices’, I learnt that sometimes when emotions are high, you may not want to make an immediate complaint. Maybe bawling your eyes out in front of the lovely smiley, helpful (hopefully) organising team isn’t part of how you see yourself. Perhaps you’d like to claw back a moment of dignity that has been lost before you say anything. Perhaps you are so furious you just want to calm down first. Or maybe your process is to speak to the person who has upset you first and try to clear the air with them directly.

I hope you would put that step aside if your safety were in question, but equally not all code breaches are because someone made you feel exceptionally uncomfortable by touching your body and telling you you look sexy in your flannel/plaid shirt. Sometimes people hurt your feelings in a way that makes you feel unsafe, unsure and vulnerable.

That’s why we reviewed our CoC and action plan to ensure people knew they could come to us, at any time. Previous iterations worked on the assumption you’d turn up at registration and demand our help. Even though we know life isn’t like that, it took a range of things not even related to the CoC to bring that incorrect assumption to our attention.

“Breaches” means what?

If you’ve followed the path so many of us have and created a code of conduct that lists the things you will not tolerate: can you recognise those things? Can you tell the difference between someone standing up for the rights of others and someone inciting hate or violence? Are you sure?

I think I’m right in saying that behaviour is a social spectrum. Between the clear, faultless space of extremely good behaviour and the miserable murk of extremely bad behaviour, there is this huge grey area where most of us tread occasionally.

I’m a foreign female in the UK. I say ‘guys’ to mean ‘group of people that I know who are before me’ as would many of my peers back home. I don’t think there is an instance where I’d say ‘guy’ in the singular, so to me this is ok, because I use ‘guys’ as a neutral term. But it’s sexist (or exclusionary) to some people. And I don’t even realise I’m saying it a lot of the time because it is so much a part of my cultural/generational background. I also absolutely do not mean it offensively and I think it is fair to say that – as far as terms go – it is not an offensive term in itself and it is not normally or consistently used to deliberately cause offence.

Other people are offended by the use of terms like ‘man hours’ or ‘manning a stand’ or the default use of ‘he/his’ to generalise statements. To many people, these ‘little’ offences are silly, something you should ignore, or things that don’t even reach their radar. To others, they are definitely unacceptable. Because of this (the fact one person may think an action or behaviour is ok where another might not agree), these examples find themselves as part of the grey area.

The way you raise a question in a conference or meetup session could be seen as aggressive by others and you might not even realise that – you’re just making your point and you feel strongly. = Grey area.

The people you refer to in your next session might be present – will they appreciate it if you call them out? Have you spoken to them about this before? Should they have a problem if what you say is ‘true’? Would their friends and colleagues feel it was fair in their absence and should you care? = Grey area.

There are millions of other points along the spectrum that fall in the grey area. Will your CoC be able to deal with these? Have you created an action plan off the back of that? Do the people you expect to manage any breaches feel comfortable with your action plan? Are they equipped to deal with it? Do they understand what your overriding goal is from having a CoC? Do you understand it?

The CoC as a tick box exercise

It’s a popular thing. Everyone’s doing it. A growing number of people are even refusing to attend or speak at events if they don’t have a CoC. “So let’s get one.”

I would like to believe that’s not what’s happening out in the world. Sure, everyone is following the path we followed – as professional event organisers it’s our responsibility to have this corner covered. The same as we have insurance and a first aid kit and check the venue’s safety plans.

But what if there’s someone out there who is just looking to tick a box?


If you’ve decided, for whatever reason, that you need a CoC, then be ready for the work involved. Be ready to spend time examining dozens of other CoCs, to read blog post after blog post on the need for them, to read uncomfortable blogs, articles and Twitter threads on violations and reactions. If you think a copy/paste job is enough then you are going to struggle when things get real.

Yes, you should always check to see if you can borrow another person’s/entity’s CoC. Yes, you should acknowledge where it came from. But be ready for the work you will still need to do. You will need to understand what those words mean, how they apply to the audience you will impose them upon, how you will deal with reactions and complaints, how you will handle breaches, what a breach means, who deals with breaches, what the law in your country requires from you, what your insurance will expect from you, how you publicise your Coc….the list goes on.

There is no tick box exercise. Sorry. There isn’t. This is a job for life.

Once is enough?

So you got a CoC, it’s on your website, it’s on your emails, it’s on your tickets, it’s on posters and in any packs you hand out. People love it. You’re getting positive feedback, you’re seeing an increase in equality or more broad diversity. Things are going great.

And then someone tells you of a breach.

You deal with the breach (have a pat on the back – they are not fun and it’s hard work). You all move on.

Is that enough? We’ve only had one breach to deal with and we’re on our fourth iteration since we started this journey. We tend to learn things in batches, so each of those iterations has involved several updates to the CoC. We intend to update it every time we learn something new, see a gap in the coverage, examine more intensely our driving goals and aims and spot where we could do better. AND whenever we have a breach.
Breaches mean something happened on our watch. We will continue to examine what we did that allowed that breach to happen and how we can prevent it happening again and take steps to improve ourselves. We are learning that a code of conduct is a never-ending journey not a final answer or a silver bullet.

Yes, that means reading uncomfortable blogs, tweets, Facebook and LinkedIn posts that we may want to close our eyes to. Yes, it means being a little more up to date with prevailing law. Yes, it means looking at our own behaviour – we aren’t as shiny and glossy as we lead ourselves to believe. But every time you improve, you polish that shine a bit. Every time you stand up for someone, protect their right to a safe environment, defend their right to be at your event, you improve yourself too. And it is totally worth it.

Is format important?

A lot of CoC’s have a TL;DR (too long; didn’t read) component. We haven’t overtly split it out, though it’s there. We have also genuinely had people tell us “it’s not enough to tell us to be nice to each other”. So we hit you with the whole expectation and we’ll back it up when we need to.

Our latest iteration includes a new section to give you an idea of what we will do if there is a breach. It says, at the top, that our aim isn’t to punish – unless we have to. We want to give people to chance to learn and grow at our events so it seems silly not to include this opportunity in the CoC. That’s what’s in the nutshell of our CoC. Don’t get me wrong – we’ll take extreme action if we need to – but we’re learning that a lot of breaches are not at the extreme end of the spectrum.

Format is a personal choice. Make sure you understand what your aim is in creating your code. Make it intelligible to your audience and back it up. And never stop evolving and learning from it.

What about my freedom of expression?

Very rarely, I’ve spotted the comment (usually on Twitter) that a code of conduct somehow limits a person’s freedoms. Do you really feel that your freedoms include the right to be badly behaved as an adult out in public? There are 2 options here – you either haven’t understood or fully appreciated why a CoC is important; or you are breaching CoCs all over the place. I don’t think this post can help someone who has no interest in improving their behaviour or considers bad behaviour as their personal right. So I’ll move on to those who don’t understand why people think they are important. Wish me luck.

As conference/event organisers, we have a duty of care for our participants and a desire to make our events welcoming, safe places for everyone. We’re in a fairly white male dominated industry sector and yet we know that just looking at a room of our participants doesn’t tell us which of them are vulnerable and to what they are vulnerable.

Every one of our participants – regardless of their race, gender, religion, sexuality, physical or mental ability, educational or financial background (etc) – deserves our duty of care. Creating a safe space is really important to those people being able to learn, expand their networks and have an enjoyable experience. A code of conduct and the action plan gives us a real practical statement of how we will provide that care when it comes to putting a whole different bunch of people in a room for 1, 2 or 3 days.

When we organise an event, we ensure that we have first aiders available, that we have the right insurances, that refreshments are provided, and safety is a natural part of that list for us. We’re also trying to avoid the pitfall of expecting you to read our minds by telling you outright what we won’t tolerate. The short-term goal is to make people feel reassured that their safety is important to us. The long-term goal is to change attitudes and behaviours that are unacceptable.

If you have never felt vulnerable I don’t know how to put you in a place to feel true empathy. But I’m pretty sure, if you’re still reading this now, that it’s possible. Maybe talk to the people around you who struggle to say no. Listen to the excuses they have for taking on the extra work, look at who they are as people. Do they have the same job title as you? Do they get paid as well as you? Are they the odd one out in your team (ie a male in an all female team? The only redhead? …) and are they getting all the rubbish jobs? Do they fear for how people will view them or if their chances to rise up the ladder will be impacted if they say no? Are you made to feel the same way about jobs? And if it’s a friend or family member, adjust those questions to suit. Chances are, you will gain a lot from reading between the lines of the answers you get – especially if you widen the conversation to ask the people passing on the work why they asked that person to take it and not you.

A code of conduct is our way of creating a level playing field on our turf and our time.

What is our goal?

We’ve moved away from the idea that any and all breaches of the code should just be punished. It’s an end result if the situation is serious or learning is not possible but it’s not a goal. Real life doesn’t neatly deliver up scenarios where one person is bad and the other is good and an heroic figure swoops in to the rescue. Real life usually dishes up complex issues involving people who are usually both good folk but one of them has made a mistake.

So it turns out our goal is the same goal as we have for our events – to provide a safe place for people to learn and grow. Making sure that everyone gets the chance to do that is important to us – change happens from learning new things. The ripple of change is one we definitely want to spread out into the world.

See our Code of Conduct

You can see an example of version 3 of our Code of Conduct here on our Agile Cambridge 2017 website.
You can see an example of version 4 of our Code of Conduct here on our UX Scotland 2018 website.


*I haven’t mentioned any real specifics for action plans. They make your CoC a complete actionable document but are specifically applicable to your audience, your team and your environment so should be carefully tailored. I do recommend, as mentioned above, that you ensure the people who carry out the action plan aren’t just aware of it but are comfortable with what is expected of them, are good at dealing with people and with fraught situations. I would also recommend having support for the team members who carry out the action plan – it’s pretty stressful, can put them in the line of abuse (verbal or physical, potentially) and also could trigger memories and pretty strong personal reactions. Hopefully it’s something they won’t have to do often, but they still need to be cared for.