I talk to a lot of people about anti-harassment policies. For a long time, those discussions were mostly about why we should have them for our events. After that, figuring out what to put in them predominated. Much discussion has gone into how to treat people who come forward to report abuse and how and whether to share information with people who might have a legitimate interest.
Those are all good discussions to have. I think they’ve generally been productive. Some of them, like sharing information, will be ongoing for a while as we make good decisions and bad in these uncharted waters. Lately, however, a different topic has been surfacing.
We know from situations in which they’ve failed that “zero-tolerance” policies, policies in which any act that is deemed to be unacceptable results in expulsion and exclusion, don’t work well. They fail in three main ways. People who are against harassment policies in general are quick to point out that they leave no room for honest mistakes. They are correct when talking about zero-tolerance policies, even if they make the same criticism about all policies.
These policies also fail because they discourage reporting. People who experience undesirable behavior under zero-tolerance policies know that reporting may well lead to expulsion. That frequently isn’t what they’re looking for. They just want the behavior to stop. This means that much undesirable behavior goes unreported. Even people who have experienced significant harassment won’t always report if reporting means taking responsibility for someone being expelled and excluded.
Finally, zero-tolerance policies fail because they’re difficult for organizers to follow. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. When there’s a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy, it gets harder for organizers to determine they’re making the right choice. Patterns of behavior are easier to work with than a single incident. Except in blatant cases, a single incident may be ambiguous where a pattern of behavior won’t be. This can lead to very high standards of evidence being required for action because the only action allowed is drastic.
It’s little wonder that we avoid zero-tolerance policies. At the same time, however, we haven’t talked much about how event organizers should deal with behavior that, on its own, may not merit expulsion. And if organizers don’t feel they have the knowledge to do more than expel or ignore, we end up with de facto zero-tolerance policies.
Since we know those don’t work well, I and a few other people have been talking about how to help organizers navigate that middle road. Maybe it shouldn’t be difficult, but it seems that we have as much difficulty setting limits and boundaries for spaces we control as organizers as we do in setting limits and boundaries for ourselves. So here’s a sample scenario and decision tree.
To make this the most useful, let’s make it hard. Let’s take an edge situation with a lot at stake. Assume you’re an organizer who has just been told that one of your volunteers or your speakers has done something another volunteer found inappropriate. It isn’t a big thing, maybe a joke that relies on an obscure gender- or race-based stereotype, an overenthusiastic and overpersonal compliment, an unwelcome shoulder rub.
Whatever has happened, it is first and foremost deniable. It could be a moment of ignorance. It could be a misunderstood situation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell you much, because predatory types typically also make their first move(s) deniable. In that case, they use a tiny step over the line to gauge how someone responds to having their boundaries violated. They’re testing to see whether it’s safe to cross more boundaries.
Lucky you, this volunteer’s reaction was to come to you. Actually, this does make you lucky. It gives you a chance to deal with the situation in-house, before it can affect any of your attendees. Unfortunately, it’s still uncomfortable for you as an organizer.
It’s also extra important that you get this right. Speakers/special guests and volunteers are in a position of power relative to your average attendee. If they do turn out to be predatory, their targets are less likely to feel they can comfortably resist, and they’re less likely to report problems directly to organizers because they’re less likely to think they’ll get a fair hearing. Speakers/special guests and volunteers are also the people that make your program run and put butts in your seats. You don’t want to antagonize them without reason.
So you really, really want to get this right the first time, but all you have to go on is one ambiguous incident. This is not a fun place to be, and if you face it, you have my sympathy. Nor are you alone. Ambiguous situations will be the bulk of what you deal with under your anti-harassment policy.
The good news is that there is a fairly straightforward way of managing these situations. If you have any assertiveness training, you’ll recognize the technique. However, you may not fully appreciate what information you pick up from the responses.
Let’s go with the speaker/shoulder rub combination here for the maximum discomfort. If this happens, start by assuming the mistake is innocent. That assumption doesn’t change how you respond, but it does keep you in a non-accusatory frame of mind. So what do you say?
I’ve been informed you gave [volunteer] an unwanted shoulder rub. Though your intent may have been good, that violates our policy. I need to know from you that this sort of thing won’t happen again at our con.
It’s short. It’s simple. It assumes goodwill. It states the problem without resorting to labels. It restates the boundary. It calls for an immediate commitment to uphold the boundary from the speaker.
Much of the time, this will get you what you’re looking for. Your speaker will say something that equates to “Oh! Oops. Of course!” Then you’ll be done, except for making sure the incident is on record. You keep a record so you have a trail in that small percentage of cases where your speaker is a serial boundary-crosser. If someone does something they’ve agreed not to do, you now have a documented pattern of behavior and the game changes. But most of the time, that won’t happen.
Your position is also simple if your speaker blows up in response a statement like that. It’s hard to find something terribly objectionable in a simple restating of boundaries. If your speaker manages, either because someone who accuse them of doing anything wrong is a terrible person or because they obviously have a right to decide your policy doesn’t apply to them, it’s time to cut ties. Maybe you assign them chaperones for the rest of the event then have nothing to do with them again. Maybe it isn’t even worth doing that. Either way, they’ve clearly demonstrated that they think your event exists for their benefit. You, your volunteers, and your attendees deserve better.
Again, this will be uncommon. There is, however, one common response that still leaves you in limbo. When confronted with having crossed someone’s boundaries, both people who crossed those boundaries accidentally and those who crossed them deliberately will often try to deflect attention from what they’ve done. Deflection can take lots of forms: pointing to someone else’s bad behavior, arguing about what should constitute harassment, arguing about what should be in your policy, making a self-deprecating joke, bemoaning their own lack of social skills, changing the subject.
If you were in a slapstick comedy, deflection would involve pointing behind you, asking what’s going on over there, then running away while your back was turned. It’s just that classic.
Deflection doesn’t necessarily tell you that you’re dealing with someone acting in bad faith. It’s much too close to being a universal human trait for that. It also, however, also doesn’t tell you what you need to know. Deflection isn’t a commitment to stop the problem behavior.
So how do you deal with deflection? You repeat yourself.
That may be/I’ll deal with that in a minute/No need to beat yourself up, but unwanted shoulder rubs still violate our policy. I need to know from you that this sort of thing won’t happen again at our con.
Don’t get pulled into an argument. Don’t get sidetracked into dealing with someone else’s behavior before you’ve finished dealing with the matter at hand. Focus on what you need to make your event work.
As with the first time you call for a commitment, the second time will typically bring one of the same three behaviors from your speaker. Agreement and blowing up tell you what they told you before. If, however, your speaker deflects a second time, it’s time to decide whether they’re more of problem than you want to deal with.
Does deflecting more than once mean they’re acting in bad faith? Not necessarily, but it does tell you they’re resisting taking you and your policy seriously. There are plenty of reason they may continue to deflect, but the deflection starts to pose a problem in itself. If you have the time and the tolerance–or a good staff who can circumvent further problems–you might decide to repeat yourself once more, just to give them the benefit of the doubt.
If you don’t, you’ve now established a pattern of behavior. Your speaker has now failed to deal seriously with your policy–with your event’s boundaries–three times. Two of those times, your speaker ignored boundaries set by an organizer, a person with the power to have them removed from the event. If that happens repeatedly, you can be fairly sure that this speaker won’t react to attendees setting their own boundaries any better.
Once is an accident. Twice may be embarrassment. Three times is a trend. It’s a trend you don’t want, and if this happens, you will have uncovered it by doing nothing more than politely and firmly standing up for your policy and your event.
I make it sound easy here, but this strategy still invites possible conflict. It still requires patience, calm, focus, and a formality that can be uncomfortable. Nonetheless, this strategy will give you a much-needed path through situations that are not cut-and-dry. It will allow you to address low-level problems and ambiguous events in a manner that’s fair to the guilty and innocent alike. And it will keep you from having to wait until problems are big enough for the blunt tools allowed by a zero-tolerance policy.