Recently, Stack Overflow sent out information on its new Code of Conduct. Being a volunteer community, if people cause problems, they can’t fire the person but one form of redress is to kick the person out of the group. One method with which to make that fair is to make it clear what is and isn’t acceptable. Thus, a code of conduct is a good tool to put into place.

But That’s Just Common Sense

Someone is reading this and about to write back and insist that this isn’t necessary – that it’s just common sense. But if it were that simple, we wouldn’t have these problems. In fact, as I read through this code of conduct, the negative examples immediately reminded me of a group I’d worked with. It was eerie how close to that group’s responses the “negative” column was. And, by the way, it was a severely under-performing group, as well and this was a significant factor in their under-performance.

The point is that it helps people understand what’s acceptable and what isn’t, as well as the consequences. Believe it or not, some people don’t even realize how toxic they are. There truly are a handful of people who, if you point this out to them in a constructive way, will actually be surprised by the realization and will try to change. Of course, there are still those who just plain don’t care and you can’t make them do it. Just keep this in-mind.

Three Elements for Codes of Conduct

It seems like not that long ago that I started writing a code of conduct type of document for iVention. I no longer remember what I put in it but I suspect it was the usual “Treat others as you’d want to be treated, whether it’s a customer or a co-worker” type of thing. For one, I considered that you can’t expect a newly-minted consultant to know how to deal with some of the extreme situations people get into and I made it simple – “If you’re in doubt, talk to your supervisor.” In addition, I seem to remember putting together a separate group of information on common issues they might run into as examples.

The Stack Overflow Code of Conduct is a good example because it gives those three key elements:

  1. Tell the rules regarding what is expected from participants.
  2. Give specific examples to help participants under the rules.
  3. Outline the consequences and actions.

In addition, the Stack Overflow Code does all this in a simple manner and I think that’s a key – make it all as clear as simple as possible. It doesn’t mean there won’t be questions or grey areas but, most of the time, it will be easy for people to follow.

Three “Plus”

The other true key to this is that it has to be enforced. If it’s not enforced, everyone will start to understand that it’s not serious and they’ll ignore it.

An Example of the Three “Plus”

Back to that under-performing group I was talking about: one day, I stumbled on a section of their web-site that basically gave a code of conduct (I don’t think that was it’s title but that looked like the intention of it). I was floored! Reading through what the company stated were their principles had nothing at all in common with the group I was working with. So, I gently asked around and found that none of the people in this group seemed to know this verbiage existed.

Thus, my opinion is that the verbiage was one of these:

  • It was something written by the marketing department to encourage more customers to work with them and/or more people to go work there. In effect, it’s just marketing fluff and has nothing to do with the real people working at the company.
  • It was created as a suggestion on how the company felt people should act but not actually a set of rules. Of course, no-one is going to follow this if it’s a suggestion, so it’s just wasted text.
  • Text written quite seriously by someone with good intentions but who had some kind of communication issue where not every employee knew this existed. As such, this is also not effective.

Back to the “Plus”

Without enforcement and probably I could add communication as a bullet point, here, but you can write anything you want and it doesn’t mean anything without enforcing it and doing so as fairly and equally as possible.

Gloria Metrick
GeoMetrick Enterprises

3 Thoughts to “Three+ Elements for Codes of Conduct”

  1. Marc

    I saw the StackOverflow code of conduct and thought it was reasonably well written. One problem I have been encountering with sites like this, they have been making it increasingly hard to register and post (askubuntu is impossible – I simply gave up – I really did not care that much to report an issue). So I would assume these are enforced, but then they face a another problem – keeping the people out which leads to the registration nonsense. There are always trade offs…

  2. I think most people don’t check out the terms of service and so the codes of conduct probably don’t discourage them. But for those of us who do, we try to be rigorous in our understanding and, in not understanding them, might just move along and not register.

    And with that, I would say that it puzzles me when sites try hard to encourage us to sign-up and then make it either especially difficult to do so, technically, or ethically (for example, if we don’t understand or agree with the code of conduct).

    NetSuite is an example of one that seemed to be working hard to encourage developers to use its platform but I must have tried signing up at a difficult time because I had to keep on them about the signup. I have to wonder if the advertised it all too well and were bombarded with people signing up and then couldn’t handle the load. I’m just making a guess but just saying there are all sorts of hurdles to getting into some of these areas.

  3. Marc

    It wasn’t the terms of service that stopped me, it was the process. I had to sign up to the ubuntu site, then the ask ubuntu site, then there were more steps, I stopped after the second sign up. I imagine the reason for all the checks is to keep people out, that they have kicked out. A side effect is they will keep people like me out. I am sure any one that is dedicated will put forth the effort, but unfortunately for them, many trolls are very dedicated. In the end, I wonder if a system like that raises the proportion of new sign ups that ultimately get kicked out rises as they ratchet up sign up process. It seems like a vicious cycle to me. Codes of conduct are good, enforcement has many trade offs. I don’t think there is a good enforcement method or process yet.

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