Before I begin, I have to say I think codes of conduct are a good thing, an essential element of a well run conference. In fact, I’d go as far to say not having a code of conduct is to neglect your duties as a conference organiser.
I know a few people who have organised conferences, some better than others, and none of them want a code of conduct. This is why codes of conduct often include some variation of “we don’t want to write this, we have to”.
The resignation to the need for a code of conduct is reflected by the popularity of the generic conference code of conduct: it’s common sense, includes what needs to be said and by using it, a conference organiser can, you know, organise a conference.
An event enjoyable for all
Conference organisers and attendees have a common goal: an enjoyable event for all. Codes of conduct allow the conference to take place in a harassment free, non-discriminatory environment. Somewhere it is enjoyable to be.
If a sponsor turns up with booth-babes, the conference organiser can point to the code of conduct and put a stop to it from the outset. The booth babes can be sent home and the sponsor can be found in breach of contract.
If a presenter has put inappropriate slides in their deck, the organiser can step in and do something about it. Even if this is discovered part way through the live presentation, it should happen.
Attendee to attendee conduct breaches
It’s the attendee’s desire to have a good time that is a complicating factor. In the case of attendee-to-attendee harassment or discriminatory comments, the attendee needs to bring the comments to the attention of the organisers.
The attendee may feel like they are making a fuss. They are not making a fuss, they are trying to enjoy themselves.
By the time someone is thinking about the conference’s code of conduct, they’re already having a bad time. If they feel like they’re making a fuss, that’s going to put them in a worse mood than they already are.
Say something: you’ll remember it as the conference you had to say something.
Don’t say something: you have to see the other party throughout the day and avoid them at the after party.
What is the solution?
The solution is don’t be an asshole, but assholes never seem to be that self aware, so that doesn’t work.
I don’t know what the other solution is. Code of conduct volunteers who sit in the audience keeping on eye on things could work, but somehow it feels wrong. And why do we have to… we work in a grown up industry, why do we have to keep an eye out for bad behaviour?
But here’s the rub. We do need to keep an eye out for antisocial behaviour, and reprimand the perpetrators when it occurs. We need to do this in such a way that the victims of this behaviour can still enjoy their conference, fixing the issue proactively rather than reactively.