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Concerns About Harassment Policy

Sezmonsta November 20, 2010 User blog:Sezmonsta

In the past week or so an amazing co-operative effort has been put into the Conference Anti-Harassment Policy. Its an initiative to provide resources to anyone planning to implement a sound, practical and positive policy to deal with Harassment, especially as it occurs at technical conferences.

At the lead on this is Valerie Aurora, with help from a number of other women including myself, and the result so far is really a great achievement.

During the work there was a lot of seeking input from people, and I personally got a fair amount of feedback. Some of it was in the context of the conference that I am on the organizing committee for, due to be held in Jan 2011, about 2 months time.

This material here started out as a way to try to generalise that commentary and make the debate it produced accessible as a resource for all. However it wound up being rather deep and philosophical, so I have put it here as a blog post to keep it available, but also better be able to exercise my thoughts around the issues.

In the sections below the parts that are in italics are meant to be representative of real concerns that people might have when they hear the term "Harassment Policy". These are not quotes by actual people, and they are not meant to be straw men arguments or trivialising of real worries.

How Can we Take Sides?

  • If there is a report of a problem, and both parties agree about what happened, that is one thing, but how can we be judge, jury and executioner, when there are differing versions of events?
  • Is it fair to act on a report when the person being complained about might have no idea they did anything wrong? Don't we have to see things from their point of view too?

In many cases the facts will be clear. The person who engaged in the complained of behaviour may freely admit what they did (although they might protest with justifications). Or there may be several witnesses who see the complained of behaviour. There may be other evidence to support the report, such as emails, or statements made by the alleged miscreant.

However the bogeyman raised in criticism of a harassment policy is that someone will "cry rape".

People wanting to argue against the idea of a policy raise the spectre of a situation where a report is made which unfairly results in someone being ejected.

This concern seems to be the most potent of all concerns in the minds of some. However it is the most easily dealt with so lets cover it first here.

Lets be clear about what is happening: the alleged perpetrator of the behaviour is quietly, confidentially and with discretion told to leave the event, and not return. There is no requirement for naming names, or for any official statement, and there is no public record. It is simply a matter between the event committee and the person who is told to leave, and that is that.

Lets say that the worst case happens, and someone could be inconvenienced by being "unfairly" ejected from a conference.

What concern is the chance of this when weighed against the certain knowledge that incidents of assault, and serious sexual and other harassment are occurring with frightening frequency at technical conferences? What real risk is there of this hypothetical case, when compared to the outcome of failing to take a stand, and doing nothing while harassment and assault is occurring to delegates at your event?

The conference is not taking sides, or adjudicating between two people when it acts on its Harassment policy. Furthermore its not the role of the conference to mete out punishment, or to discipline anyone in anyway.

If later the police get involved and the matter goes to the courts, then it will be judged. Its not the job of the conference to interview both parties and collect evidence. There is nothing to be concerned about on the behalf of this hypothetical innocent accused other than that they suffer some inconvenience to their plans.

  • But if you are ejecting them, that is a judgement! You are accepting the complainants version of events! How can you make such a decision without evidence!

There is no such judgement here.

Whether the "evidence" consists of just the one report, or a tide of supporting and damning information, the conference organisers cannot ever get into the business of trying to decide guilt or innocence. They ought never be tempted to make any public statement in this regard, no matter what the circumstances.

No penalty is suggested and no "sentencing" is recorded. It is the job of the criminal courts to decide the facts, and pass sentence; not the event organisers. Ejecting the person complained about is simply a matter of practicalities, and a matter of acting on the commitment represented by the policy; never a judgement or a penalty.

If some one is ejected all they face is the inconvenience of having to change their plans. If as they claim there is no charge to answer, then they can tell their colleagues and friends what ever they like about why they left the conference. While the conference organisers will have their own records of events, no public record is made and - assuming the police are not involved which is a completely separate matter - the person involved goes on with life as normal.

Regarding fairness, if the person named in the report as the offending party wishes to make grievance against the event organisers then the usual channels are available for that.

The fact is that the recourse of someone being ejected from the event is necessary to make the conference policy effective and to ensure that all attendees feel respected.

Its not there to act as a penalty.

No decision made or action taken under this policy is ever a judgement of any type on any individual.

Surely People Should Already Know?

In many cases people do not know that certain behaviour is not tolerated. Some people feel that once away from home, at a gathering of like-minded individuals that rules are relaxed.

One thing is for sure - conference attendees are looking to the conference officials for guidance on what applies. Whatever their normal standards, a conference is a very different environment, and the organisers of the event have a particular responsibility to clearly state what the ground rules are

Out of All the Bad Behaviour Possible Why Harassment?

Most types of behaviour can be dealt with simply by those present. However Harassment may include physical assault, sexual assault or other behaviour of a nature that relates to power of one individual over another, used in a way that reduces the harassed persons ability to act in their defence. This makes it uniquely difficult for them to seek the help of others present. For example if the person experiencing the harassment is a woman, and all others present are men, it may be practically impossible for her to approach those around her to deal with the matter appropriately.

Furthermore, harassment, including physical assault of a sexual nature is a shame that is becoming more exposed in recent times, and is likely a source of the discomfort and unpopularity of technical conferences amongst women, or others likely to have those experiences. Having a prominent policy on this particularly pernicious problem is a very good idea.

  • Why have a policy just on harassment, if we're going to do this, why not cover a list of bad behaviours like XXX, and YYY?

Behaviours like theft, bodily fluids in public places - these are already very adequately dealt with, both in existing policy and in the minds and social contracts of both conference officials and most attendees.

However many will not see behaviours that fall under the harassment policy in the same way. It is very important to state up front how event organisers see this issue.

Often the Terms and Conditions of an event will cover bad behaviours with a word or two, and this is sufficient. Where alcohol is served, or where some other service is offered as part of an event - like wireless internet access - there may be a need for specific coverage of unacceptable behaviours there.

But this is a chance for your event to take a specific stance on a problem that is impacting some potential attendees in a particular and personal way. It is an opportunity to show that special attention is being given by this event to make sure that all attendees can feel safer, and to promote a welcoming and inclusive environment.

Doesn't our XYZ Terms/Contract/Policy Cover This?

The best way to implement this policy is very likely to be to include it as a completely separate document, and to avoid changing any existing Terms & Conditions, Policy statements or Contracts that your conference or event is bound by.

This is especially true for long running conferences who have at least a historical, and probably practical commitment to a set of Policies or other binding statements.

Promotion of your conference's policy on Harassment is likely to be a signature item, intended to make your event more inclusive and more appealing to women, or to people who might otherwise feel uncomfortable attending. For that reason having it as a separate document is also a good idea.

Notice also that since your policy on Harassment is a statement of intent, and a plan for action; thus it is informative in sense, rather than normative. It does not need to form part of binding statements that are included for example in registration agreements, acceptable use policy or other such "legal" documents.

Also the contractual terms relating to your event may already specify a list of remedies - such as warnings, orders to rectify and so on - which may well be completely inappropriate in the case of harassment. For a range of reasons, allowing your even'ts response to harassment to fall under its normal terms and conditions is likely to result in a failure to deal with an actual report in a good way when it eventuates.

Don't we Have to Put Such Matters to the Police Anyway?

Maybe, but does that relieve your event of any responsibility to act? What if the police fail to act, for some reason unrelated to the importance or validity of the report: does your conference really want to be tarred with the brush of also failing? Does your conference want to be known as allowing behaviour like this to go unchecked?

First, delegate someone at your conference to research all your obligations and powers under local law, with relation to harassment, including various kinds of assault, stalking or other behaviours covered by the policy. Ideally retain legal help - that is a lawyer - to be sure of these issues, and where your obligations start and end.

As a practical matter event officials should make careful notes of the report they receive including the exact time they first received the report, and all relevant facts.

But all of this notwithstanding, typically whether the matter is taken to the Police or not must be left to the person experiencing the harassment. See the next section for more on that.

At then end of the day, it is only tangentially related to your actions, whether any particular authority acts in regard to an experience of harassment by someone at your conference.

  • A policy on harassment and assault? Its illegal! End of story!

Speeding and foul language can be illegal too, but where they might be tolerated out in the country, they might not be tolerated outside a school. What is tolerated at your conference, when it comes to sexual harassment? Some attending your conference might think some behaviours are "good sport", and it is up to you as event organisers to set the standard as to what will be tolerated.

As officials of the conference, organisers can take a policy stance on harassment which may be a more immediate and proximal influence on potential harassers than any perception those harassers may have of the law. Harassers may feel they are safe from the eyes of the law in the conference setting, that transgressions are to be tolerated here - "what happens at the conf, stays at the conf" - but here is where event organisers can step up to say that standards do apply and harassing behaviour is not tolerated.

Without a Complaint to the Authorities Surely its Not Real?

  • If she doesn't make a complaint to the police there can't be much in it

Great care should be taken to be supportive of whatever action the person making a report to event organisers wants to take. They may have a very good reason for not wanting to report the matter to the police which event organisers have no visibility into, and no right to know about.

If a report is not made to the police, that does not mean that the behaviour was not illegal, it just means it is unreported. The conference or event has no other role in this regard apart from fulfilling any legal obligations, (see the previous section) and supporting the person who makes the report.

The thing that is important is that it is effectively orthogonal to your policy whether or not police or any other authority acts.

By way of an example from another sphere - some retail outlets will ban persons whom they suspect of shop-stealing. In some countries and jurisdictions the power for this ban comes from the law of trespass, where a person named in writing can be barred from entering onto a certain premises. There is no requirement in this case for any charge of shop-stealing to be made, it is simply a matter of the decision made by the store under their policy, and the power provided by the trespass legislation to be used to enforce the ban. Consult a lawyer for applicable provisions in your events case.

The point is that if a report to police is made, the event is not alleviated of an ethical duty to act. Police are likely to make no restraint on the freedom of the person to turn up back at the conference venue - is that what should happen at your event?

Don't we know that Everyone at the Event is an Adult?

Adults do not consent to being subject to harassing behaviour just by turning up at an event. Women and men who want to be themselves, should feel comfortable that they do not need to take special measures to show that they are not consenting to physical contact, just by appearing at your conference.

What's more as discussed elsewhere on this page one can't assume that people will know this.

  • She/He was asking for it dressing like that - who could blame me?
  • Did you see how X was behaving - she/he looking for a reaction and he got it.

Consent is not a failure to deny physical or other attention. In an inclusive conference or event, an attendee from a diverse background dressing or acting in some particular way, does not give anyone else the license to harass.

Women and others who are often in the minority, particularly at technical conferences, will often experience that others sometimes fail to appreciate this principle about consent. They, and the rest of your public will welcome the policies of your conference which reinforce this point.

How Can the Policy Relate to Social Events or even Hotel Rooms?

Since this policy is a statement of what behaviour will be tolerated by your conference it does not relate to specific powers or rights over any venues. If your event receives a report that someone has behaved in a way that is harassing, violent or otherwise breaches your stated policy then they have had fair warning that this will not be tolerated.

They are then liable to be ejected from the event, including all its official venues and fixtures.

  • We cannot be responsible for what happens behind the doors of someone's hotel room

If a report is made to you as a conference official, that someone is a harasser of conference delegates, wherever that harassment occurs, then your policy should be clear and the recourse obvious - the harasser is subject to being ejected from the conference before they offend again, and before they stain the whole reputation of the conference by their continued presence at its venues.

How Can We Set the Bounds of this Policy?

Use the guidelines on these pages, and restrict it to harassment. If you have concerns about other forms of behaviour then include separate policies for those.

Isn't it too Far-Reaching?

The policy is a statement of intent, and a plan for action. Its not a legal statement, although you should check with your lawyer for advice. As such its intent is informative, and makes it clear to conference attendees what sorts of behaviours will not be tolerated. Obviously the final recourse may be to eject someone from the conference, but as explained above this is not contractually linked, is not a judgement on the person ejected and does not constitute a statement by the event.

Isn't There Already Enough Publicity About This?

We may feel that we don't want to hear any more about the seedy side of human nature. Headlines make us squirm, and reports, blog posts and forum discussion make some of us defensive.

But this is an opportunity for your conference or event to stand above the mud-slinging and unconstructive wars of words on the internet and elsewhere; and to do something real and positive. This is not about seeking publicity or soap-boxing.

Of course once a policy is made and its implementation has been set, then it is a thing worth promoting so as to attract more diverse delegates to your conference, and to publicise your events stance on this important issue. These are then statements about facts - about your policy - not speculation and opinion.

Nothing We Do Could Really Stop This, Right?

This is a form of fallacious argument that is the resort of those who have run out of real arguments.

No policy like this is realistically expecting to halt all behaviour falling under the heading of harassment. Its precisely because this sort of behaviour occurs too frequently that the policy is needed.

What is important is that your event is seen to stand against harassment.

There is a tendency in human nature for some to behave badly, and it requires an opposing tendency - like your conference policy - to ensure that there are not more and more incidents of the kind we all don't want.

It is never a failure of the policy or of the event, or of its organizers to not stop harassment from occurring: it is only a failure to not try.

If in fact the policy does something to improve the situation - and lets face it you're likely to never know if it did - then the policy has succeeded.

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