Over the coming months we’ll be exploring a number of metaphors about community management that can support conversations about specific concepts and common challenges in a creative and free-flowing manner.
You can read more about the series – and the accompanying community calls in our overview post. For each metaphor, there will be a blog post describing the metaphor and several additional posts applying it to specific scenarios. This post is the last in a series of four posts dissecting the house party metaphor.
What happens when something unpleasant happens at your house party? Maybe one of your guests takes over the sound system, and your other guests start leaving because the music is now too loud or not to their taste. Or perhaps a group of friends sets up a game in the kitchen, but they don’t invite any of the other guests to play and they’re making it hard for folks to access food and beverages.
As host, it’s your responsibility to not only handle these situations in the moment, but also communicate ahead of time how you expect your guests to behave towards one another in the shared spaces in which they meet. In this final blog post exploring the house party metaphor for community management (you can find all related posts here), we take a look at the importance of community participation guidelines (aka codes of conduct or codes of behavior) to maintaining a community space where all your members feel welcome and supported.
Why have community participation guidelines?
There are many compelling reasons for compiling community participation guidelines (CPGs), and doing these before your house parties become well established as it’s harder to course-correct than to outline expectations up front. CPGs primarily exist to protect community members from the harm that can be caused by the negative behaviors of other members of the community. This is especially important for members who may be part of a minoritized or underrepresented group.
CPGs also exist to set expectations and norms, and support you as community manager when a transgression occurs – you have a record of what a member agreed to abide by when they joined your community, which gives you something to refer back to in any subsequent conversations. Thinking through your potential responses to reports also underscores the importance of including enough detail in your CPGs about expected and unacceptable behaviors, and where your guidelines apply, rather than optimistically relying on individuals “knowing how to behave” and intuiting “the etiquette is around here.”
“In the explicitness…of these rules was a hint of what they were really about: replacing the passive-aggressive, exclusionary, glacially conservative commandments of etiquette with something more…democratic.”Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering
What belongs in CoC – and what should you call it?
Per Aurora and Gardiner, a Code of Conduct or set of Community Participation Guidelines should contain (in roughly this order):
- Optionally, a short statement describing the goal of the code of conduct
- A list of unacceptable behaviors
- A description of where the code of conduct applies
- A list of potential consequences for violating the code of conduct
- Detailed, specific, simple instructions for reporting a code of conduct violation
- A list of the people who will handle the code of conduct report
- A promise that anyone directly involved in a report will recuse themselves
- Optionally, contact information for emergency services
- Optionally, links to related documents
Where do your community participation guidelines apply?
Let’s go back to the metaphor. Imagine some of your guests drink a little too much and get into a fight. It starts in the living room, and you ask them to take it outside. Instead of cooling off, they continue to brawl, waking your neighbors and damaging one of your guests’ cars.
Now what? Are these rowdy members beholden to your CPGs even though the damage they did was outside the house (i.e.technically outside your community but still in a place where some of your collaborators and members are also present)? You provided the space to convene and the refreshments that may have fuelled the situation. Plus, you like your neighbors and you enjoy volunteering with them at the local food pantry. It’s clear that you will need to do something, but what?
This metaphorical situation can and does play out in communities, especially those that overlap and share common members, and it presents a real challenge to mediate and resolve. Banning a member from your community is an option, but are you then obligated to tell community managers at related organizations about the situation?
And what about the people involved in the fight? Who started it? Did they both contravene your CPGs in the same way? Do they deserve to be banned from every community they’ve ever been part of?
We don’t have all the answers to these questions, but we hope you’ll join us at next Wednesday’s community call, as these are exactly the kind of scenarios we’d like to play out using the house party metaphor.
Where to start – adapting existing community participation guidelines
Okay, so you know you need CPGs, but it can feel intimidating to start writing them. Good news: a lot of organizations publish their CPGs under Creative Commons licenses that mean they can be adapted and re-mixed, usually with attribution. Here are some examples:
We strongly suggest, however, that before you adapt a set of CPGs, you consider developing a set of guiding principles, or core values, that are specific to your organization. We’ve created a worksheet to guide you through this process, which you can download here. It is often by understanding the nuance of your values that you are able to identify what approach your CPGs should take, such as how much you might invest in restorative approaches and which, if any, violations have a non-negotiable, specific consequence, such as a ban.
Socializing your code of conduct
An important function of your community participation guidelines is to educate your members as to what behaviors are acceptable in your community. What may seem like common sense to you might surprise a new member who is used to a different set of norms and behaviors. But how do you share and socialize a code of conduct?
Thinking back to the house party metaphor, you have multiple opportunities to set expectations, including sending out details with the initial invites, considering what happens when someone arrives at the party, and maybe even creating scaffolding that reinforces specific relevant behaviors (signs on the fridge to put empties in the recycling; or by the door to the garden to remind guests not to disturb the neighbors if they go outside).
At CSCCE, we started earlier in the process by inviting members to help shape our guidelines with us. Following several months of collaborative work with a working group of members, we hosted a community call about our new core values and community participation guidelines (CPGs), which included collaborative activities to suggest examples of positive and negative behaviors for each of the core values. We also highlight the existence of our values and CPGs regularly – for example, they are always linked from our community call shared notes docs, included in introductory slide decks, and are part of the onboarding process for our online trainings.
However you decide to socialize your code of conduct, keep in mind its educational function – it’s OK for folks to ask questions, and answering them is an opportunity to explore together what the messy reality of implementation can look like.
Responding to reports of misconduct
Community participation guidelines are only half of the matter here. Your community members not only need to know what expected and tolerated behavior is, but also what to do if someone ignores those expectations and causes harm.
Thinking about things that might arise at a house party – would you feel comfortable going directly to the host and naming a problem that involved a popular or well-known guest? What would it take for you to feel safe staying at a party where someone was behaving poorly? And what about if you see opportunities for improvements that no one else has noticed – such as pointing out that those sandwiches aren’t going to work for vegetarians or there aren’t many non-alcoholic drink options.
There are a number of considerations to think through here, and chances are you’ll need to create your own “best” version of how to welcome, review, and respond to violations. As we were working through our own process at CSCCE, here are some of the things that came up for us.
- Anonymous reporting via an online form – this is a great choice if your primary concern is protecting the person who was harmed. Identifying themselves in the reporting process might make them vulnerable to future incidents, or otherwise damage their mental health or professional reputation. However, it does make it more challenging to verify the report and also ensure that the person reporting the violation knows what you have done to resolve the situation.
- Setting up an email address for reporting purposes – this option means that you can set up a communications channel that is not one-to-one, which ensures accountability for a swift response to any reports. However, with this option it is important to make clear who has access to messages sent to that account.
- Offering multiple reporting options – ultimately, this is what we decided to do. We created a form that can be completed anonymously, with the option to self-identify. The form is first received by the CSCCE staff who serve on our CoC committee, and then shared with the other members, so reporters can indicate if they would prefer it go no further.
Ideally, you won’t have to arbitrate a CPG violation on your own. Convene a small committee, with diverse representation, and ensure that they understand what is required of them. You could also offer to support their participation in a code of conduct training program.
Again, the house party metaphor can be helpful to think through power imbalances and any negative repercussions for members who are given this additional authority.
Responding to transgressions – punitive vs. restorative approaches
Depending on the gravity of the situation, you’ll have to consider what constitutes the appropriate response to the incident. If someone has broken the law, consult with a lawyer and report the offense to the appropriate authorities. But for small incidents, it’s up to you and your committee. Options include temporary or permanent bans from community spaces and events, mediating conversations between the people involved until they resolve the issue, or suggesting that someone take on some training or education before their membership is reinstated.
Restorative approaches to conflict resolution are not without their challenges, and often work best when facilitated by a trained individual. Consider if you or someone on your team has the bandwidth to take some additional professional development in this area.
Coming up – join next week’s community call!
This was our last post ruminating on the house party metaphor. On Wednesday, we hope you’ll join us to talk about it some more in our monthly community call! Our next blog post will be a recap of that call, and then early next year we’ll head outside for our next metaphor – the garden!
If you have any questions, or you’re interested in participating as a reviewer when we compile these blog posts and associated worksheets into a published booklet early next year, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional reading / Resources
- CSCCE’s Community Participation Guidelines now available – In this blog post, the member of a CSCCE Working Group describe how they co-created a set of Core Values Statements and ultimately CSCCE’s Community Participation Guidelines.
- Center for Scientific Collaboration and Community Engagement (2020). Creating core values statements. Woodley and Pratt doi: 10.5281/zenodo.3906620
- How to respond to Code of Conduct reports – This guide created by CoC experts Valerie Aurora and Mary Gardiner offers a deep look at how to respond to CoC violations.
- We will not cancel us – In this short booklet, adrienne maree brown explores cancel culture and restorative justice.