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An event organizer’s duty of care: from Codes of Conduct to Health and Safety policies

If you’ve been organizing events in tech over the last couple of decades, you’ve seen significant improvement in the way organizers think about inclusion.

There was the #CoCPledge movement that made it mainstream for our events to have Codes of Conduct (CoC), and increasingly we see events offering childcare, providing financial aid, and incorporating live captions.

It is my view that the work of evolving our collective practice is not done. While “con flu” and “con crud” have long been treated as acceptable and inevitable consequences of in-person events, they were never inevitable, and they always disproportionately harmed marginalized people.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers us an opportunity to do better, but we have to choose to seize that opportunity. Many are. Many more aren’t.

Why do we have Codes of Conduct?

We have Codes of Conduct because using the standard of what is legal and illegal is not good enough to build healthy, inclusive, and productive communities.

People come from wildly different backgrounds, and a Code of Conduct spells out what is and is not acceptable. It sets us up for collective success by being explicit, helping people be their best selves, and providing recourse when something goes wrong.

And as controversial as CoC’s were with reactionaries, they’ve been around a long time and rarely did they cause a fuss. Your local shopping center probably has a CoC.

Ultimately, CoC’s have made our discussions and collaborations less toxic, and have improved diversity and representation.

Today, all but the most fringe events have a Code of Conduct.

The rapid rise and fall of Health and Safety policies

The COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges for event organizers. After a year or two of canceled events and hurried attempts to swap to online events, we slowly began convening in-person events again. Often cautiously, and within new frameworks given to us by our local public health authorities.

These additional requirements were folded into new policies, and often linked to the enforcement mechanisms already established for the Code of Conduct. The names varied, but broadly these have been described as Health and Safety policies.

And for a brief moment, it became rare for people to return from events with a flu or cold that they’d then transmit to their loved ones. (Which, by the way, are not unserious things. Even ‘healthy’ people can end up with long term consequences from viral infections.)

Further, events became more accessible to people with disabilities, chronic illness, caregivers, and those who live with them. It should be noted that those are all dimensions of identity that correlate with other marginalized identities along lines like race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.

But when public health measures like mask mandates and physical distancing began falling, many organizers breathed a sigh of relief and updated their policies accordingly. Today, many policies resemble this:

“Our event follows and enforces health and safety guidelines as recommended by the local health authorities with regards to COVID-19.”

Where’s the disconnect?

As many events have adopted a “what authorities require us to do” approach to Health and Safety, I had to wonder:

Did we not enjoy coming home from events with our health intact? Did we not value the benefits of improved accessibility for marginalized people? And how do we rationalize going above and beyond what’s required by authorities in our Codes of Conduct, while embracing the lowest bar legally available for Health and Safety?

Exploring possible answers to those questions has been an extremely uncomfortable exercise, confronting ableism, hyper individualism, the demands of capitalism, and failures of public policy and science communication.

I hoped that, in free and open source software – where we spill lots of ink about sustainability, the commons, and the virtues of community – we would understand that communal efforts to protect the health and well-being of our fellow contributors, and expand access, were efforts worth making.

As I’ve said before: If an event has a Code of Conduct, but lacks a robust Health and Safety policy, its organizers have missed the point.

Health and Safety isn’t a box ticking exercise to placate authorities. It’s an opportunity to be more inclusive.

Learning to do better

When I started organizing events in earnest about 12 years ago, I had only a vague sense of my duty of care, and what I needed to do to provide a welcoming and productive environment so that people could thrive.

Along the way, there have been many uncomfortable lessons. I’ve let down people with mobility issues, people with hearing issues, people who rely on screenreaders, people who don’t fit into binary thinking, parents of young children, and people of lesser means.

But I have to remember that being an organizer is a choice, and more importantly, that my discomfort pales in comparison to the costs born by those who I failed to care for and excluded. And that’s true whether I’m doing the work as a volunteer, or as a staffer, whether or not I identify as a good person, whether or not I’m generous with my time, or accomplished.

As organizers, we know that we’re never done learning and improving.

So while many organizers are on the fence or resistant to doing more than the bare minimum required for Health and Safety, I suspect it’s only a matter of time till it’s standard practice to do better.

The path to ubiquity for Codes of Conduct was slow, until it wasn’t.

Look to the good examples

Whether you’re an event organizer who has good intentions but isn’t sure where to start, or a person deeply invested in protecting your health who is frustrated that an event you want to attend is dropping the ball: look to the good examples, and share them.

As the author of the Public Health Pledge, I am fortunate to be in community with people who are committed to doing better and have been experimenting and establishing practices we can learn from.

There are trailblazers here, and they are worthy of celebration. Here are just a few:

Don’t let anyone convince you we can’t do better. We can, and will.





4 responses to “An event organizer’s duty of care: from Codes of Conduct to Health and Safety policies”

  1. anonymous Avatar

    An event organizer’s duty of care – ZeroBytes

  2. gRegor Morrill Avatar

    This is a really empathetic and encouraging post urging event organizers to improve events with better Health and Safety policies: An event organizer’s duty of…

  3. Dan Yeaw Avatar

    @josh I really love this. Have you heard of any meetup size groups adopting one of these or just larger conferences?

  4. marado Avatar

    @josh Just read this and found some background info here on the "why" that I feel is lacking on @phpledge's website. That website has, basically, a page for 'what' and another for 'how' – but what about one for 'why'?

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