So You've Got Yourself a Policy. Now What?

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.

So You've Got Yourself a Policy. Now What?

16 thoughts on “So You've Got Yourself a Policy. Now What?

  1. 2

    Second that.

    I wonder if it wouldn’t be useful to have a copy of the policy in hand and if there is a deflection attempt: Side step the deflection with “Perhaps you were not aware of our policy, here it is”

  2. 5

    “When Women Feel Safe, Everybody Has More Fun”

    Alternately: “Why should assholes have all the fun?”

    (i.e. If we let predators prey on people, then no-one else has fun)

  3. 6

    I was at a convention for a role-playing game recently. It was a small convention, perhaps a bit over a hundred people total, and it often seems that those have a greater ‘skew’ towards the privileged demographic (white, straight, male) than the bigger geek conventions like DragonCon and GenCon and the like, simply because by being less advertised, they often are attended by people who caught word-of-mouth about them. So yes, very white, very middle-class, and mostly male (I’d say 80/20 representation, or thereabouts).

    That said, the convention volunteer staff (outside of event judges) was heavily dominated by women. I’d say they composed maybe 4 out of the 5 or 6 con volunteers. One of the big chores during this sort of event is keeping your judges on-task at the game-tables, by running and providing them small snacks and drinks (so they don’t have to declare a break just because they’ve been talking almost solidly for an hour, with three more to go).

    So we had a lot of women running from the HQ table to the game tables, bringing the judges snacks and drinks, usually asking what they wanted. Well, one wag attendee at our table piped up after our judge declined a fresh beverage, saying, “Well, I wouldn’t mind a fresh coffee.” The volunteer rolled her eyes and went on her way.

    Then, at a later point, she came over and asked how we were doing as a table–again, pretty much just making sure we were having a good time and enjoying ourselves. The wag decided to press his luck, saying, “Well, I still haven’t gotten my coffee.” (I want to note: I missed this second event; I was told about it later. I’d like to believe I would’ve spoken up at the time, but I was distracted and buzzed by the general camraderie of the event, so I can not swear to it.)

    This time, the volunteer went back to the Con HQ table and told the event coordinator what happened. The coordinator waited for the next formal break, and came over to our table, and spoke quietly to the player. “I think you should know that the volunteer did not find the jcomment about coffee amusing, and I’m going to ask that we not have any more of that sort of thing.”

    Initially, the attendee did, indeed, try deflection: “Oh, I just was joking around, I didn’t expect her to do it,or anything.” The coordinator nodded and did EXACTLY what you suggest: “I understand that, but that’s not how the comments were taken. From now on, I just want you to avoid that sort of thing entirely.” Second time, he got it, and agreed.

    Now, it’s perfectly possible that the player had no particular sexist overtones in mind–he may have been trying to lampoon th stereotypical entilted guesrt, not putting his comment in the context of a world were ‘make me a sammich’ jokes are still comment. Didn’t matter–the volunteer was made uncomfortable, the coordinator addressed it, and then everyone was happy.

  4. 7

    And, of course, the Readercon debacle is a perfect example of how NOT to handle this. Readercon had something pretty close to a zero tolerance policy, trying to create a safe space, but they botched the follow-through:

    – Man who is a bit of a Big Name Fan (having helped organize Worldcons) shows up at Readercon, meets up with someone he used to know fairly well.
    – Man in question pushes boundaries, misses clues, and gets a little bit too inappropriately familiar.
    – Complaints get made.
    – Man gets called up in front of the board after the con, agrees that yes, he violated the stated policy of the con, and agrees to whatever punishment the board will dole out. (The convention by-laws state that the punishment in question includes a permanent future ban from membership.)
    – Board, in violation of the convention policy, goes ‘He’s a good guy and didn’t really mean it’, and waives the punishment.
    – Community, in response, raises more complaints and starts talking about boycotts.
    – Convention execs note that the board violated policy itself, dissolve the board, reinstate the punishment in question, and start the long haul of rebuilding trust.

    If the board had actually followed its own stated policies, this would have made barely a ripple, especially since the accused in question was willing to accept the ban. (He was smart enough to know, among other things, that expecting to enforce policies at conventions he’s involved with would be looked at side-eyed if he didn’t accept policies at other conventions.)

    (Full disclosure: yes, I personally know the gentleman in question. He’s a nice guy, and I have no doubt that he didn’t mean to hurt anybody, but I can also easily see him waltzing across boundaries unless they’re made quite clear to start with.)

  5. 8

    This is very well stated and is a very good starting point on how to begin the process of dealing with those who push boundaries either by accident, because they are socially lost or because they want to get away with something. I am very glad to see such a cogent article.

  6. Gen

    This is really excellent! I’m on the staff of a video game con this autumn and this will make a great read for the future security volunteers. 😀

  7. 11

    […] So You’ve Got Yourself a Policy. Now What? | Stephanie Zvan at Freethough Blogs (April 10): “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.” […]

  8. 14

    […] added an anti-harassment policy last year, or updated the one they had. Stephanie Zvan’s ”So You’ve Got Yourself a Policy. Now What?” walks conrunners through a challenging scenario and offers practical suggestions about the  way to […]

  9. 15

    Maybe I’m missing it, but another possible response would be outright denial. “Didn’t happen”. I assume you would take basically the same approach? “I need to know from you that this sort of thing won’t happen at our con”.

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