Handling Community Conflict (Like a Boss)

Handling Community Conflict (Like a Boss) is a guest post by Emma Jane Westby, an author and trainer specializing in Drupal site building and theming materials. This article is the third installment in our new USENIX Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) series:

Part 1: How to Write a Talk Proposal
Part 2: Imposter Syndrome-Proof Yourself and Your Community

Handling Community Conflict (Like a Boss)

My work persona and my private persona have made serious divisions in the past few years. The person I present to each social circle has become significantly different, and defining the core that stretches across the boundaries of each discrete interaction that I have is challenging sometimes. The threshold of what I find acceptable in various situations differs radically. And my own approach to inclusion has changed significantly since I first started appearing as a speaker on stage at open source conferences.

In this article, I will share personal and community examples of approaches to handling conflict within tech communities. Being prepared for handling conflict before it happens can make the difference between improving a situation or exacerbating it.

Direct Confrontation

Generalizations are tricky. Often stereotypes are based on fragments of truth and commonality, but using a stereotype in storytelling can further marginalize a group that is already on the edges of a community. For example, I once heckled a conference keynote speaker who used his mother as an example of a technically illiterate person. The presentation was fine until the story turned from the presenter's mother to a generalization of all mothers. I called out my frustration. The speaker responded. We had a short, shouted conversation (as was required for the space). The speaker apologized. We have never spoken again, and I have actively avoided the speaker at tech events ever since. Some people in the community praised me for having said out loud what they were thinking. Others were disappointed in me and frustrated that I dealt with the situation in a way they felt was not appropriate for our community. And that was it: the story of the confrontation began, and ended, within a day or two.

No one stopped me when I heckled the keynote speaker. A few people in the audience recognized my voice, but otherwise I was anonymous. I was not called out publicly for my actions. Only the keynote speaker was truly visible. Alone, and on stage, the keynote speaker accepted the confrontation and dealt with me, the accuser, directly. After the event, no one called me out publicly. The brief incident was embarrassing for many attendees, and empowering for others. There were many conversations after the keynote, of course, but the public court of revenge over my actions was virtually absent.

I did not make a formal complaint with the conference or request that future keynotes be screened. At the same conference the following year, another keynote speaker made a similar remark stereotyping “moms” as being less technical. Perhaps emboldened by my actions the previous year, the audience heckled. The original problem still had not been resolved, and the group of attendees reacted with the same behavior as my own the year before. It is a slippery slope to becoming a disrespectful community when we allow the mob to vocally correct behavior from the protection of a crowd.

The audience heckling potentially could have been avoided the second time if the presentation had been reviewed in advance by the conference organizers. Reviewing presentations by an empathetic member of the community, and providing guidance based on the community's code code conduct, might have given the speaker the opportunity to deliver only the best possible message for this particular community. This doesn't mean speakers aren't allowed to be confrontational, but rather, speakers should be encouraged to focus their arguments on the right points, instead of losing the audience in details that were never meant to be the core focus of their presentation. Providing corrections on inappropriate statements by conference speakers is difficult, particularly when they are well-known or influential, and especially when we do not believe the comments are intentionally meant to be harmful. On the other hand, failing to call out bad behavior potentially costs the community valuable contributors if people feel embarrassed, excluded, or in any way unsafe by statements and behaviors that are highlighted on stage.

Codes of Conduct

Having a code of conduct in place for a community, organization, or event helps new community members understand what kind of behavior is acceptable, and what is not. The Ubuntu Code of Conduct has been used as a starting point by a number of other open source communities as an example of a “do” checklist for how community members should interact. Developing a code of conduct can be a difficult process for communities as they strive to meet the right balance of promoting “good” behavior and defining “bad” behavior. I am proud of the work the Drupal community has done on its event code of conduct; however, our code of conduct is not as descriptive of what constitutes “bad” behavior as the sample anti-harassment policy created by the Ada Initiative. As you will see in the next section, having a more explicit policy doesn't necessarily protect your community from harm. You will need to decide, with your community, what tone to use when describing the behavior you expect from your community members.

Public, Indirect Confrontation

Although I am notorious for my direct approach to life's challenges, my approach has been the source of personal embarrassment on more than one occasion. My lack of inhibition comes from a position of privilege, and is not a character trait that everyone feels empowered, or indeed simply safe enough to use. I have outlined the potential disadvantages of direct public confrontation in the previous section, but there are also disadvantages to public, indirect confrontation as we saw at PyCon in 2013.

PyCon seemed to be doing everything right for its 2013 conference, and then things went unpredictably sour. After getting fed up with sexualized comments behind her, one of the attendees at PyCon, through a public tweet, asked that the PyCon organizers deal with the two gentlemen who were making the comments. She included a photo to make it easier for the offenders to be addressed directly. The PyCon conference code of conduct explicitly forbade sexualized language and instructed attendees to inform a member of the PyCon conference staff, or hotel staff, with their concerns. The reporter did exactly this, but in a public forum: Twitter. No one could have predicted the community fallout that resulted in the reporter and one of the offenders losing their jobs. PyCon did everything “right,” and yet the result had massive consequences that I would have never predicted from the original tweet.

The event organizers went above and beyond to make PyCon inclusive, but this Twitter meltdown took the focus away from the otherwise excellent event. Hindsight is always perfectly clear. Had the reporter taken the time to send her comments via a private forum, the results of her actions would have been different. We can only assume that PyCon would have behaved exactly the same, and pulled the offenders aside to deal with them directly, and privately. And we can only assume that without the initial public declaration on Twitter, that the mob would not have descended. With the calming influence time has had, my recommendation would be to make it easier for people to report harassment, or unwanted behavior, privately and through the format of the audience's choice. For example: a Twitter account that automatically follows any subscriber and allows you to send a direct message; or a Facebook account; or a contact form with an upload button for images; or an email address. People should have the power to use the fastest possible method to report harassment. Your event's code of conduct should have a way to receive digital submissions of complaints (there is not an email address, or contact form linked from the PyCon code of conduct).

When putting together your policies, assume the worst, and think through the ways people may do horrible things. If you can think of no possible, horrible outcomes, use the Geek Feminism Wiki list of incidents and ask yourself, “How could we have mitigated these incidents to ensure a positive experience for our community members?”

Implement Policy Changes

In 2013, while presenting at DrupalCon, I received anonymous feedback for my session through the conference web site, which commented on my looks. The comment itself was benign; it didn't make me feel unsafe, but I did feel that it was misplaced. Initially I chuckled as I assumed it was from one of my friends; however, the comment was certainly not professional and definitely not something I would have left as an anonymous feedback, even for a friend, when asked to rate a presenter's session at an international conference.

Within the structure of the feedback system, there was no way for me to respond to the commenter. The web site allowed the attendee to leave comments without any repercussion. Community shaming was not possible. Flagging the comment for organizers was not possible. All I could do was accept the comment and, because it was the first comment I'd received, read it when I viewed any additional feedback about my session.

Fortunately, the first time I read the comment I was sitting with a friend of mine who happens to be a member of the Drupal Community Working Group and was responsible for receiving complaints about harassment at the conference. I talked to my friend, an ally, about the consequences of taking action, or letting it be. Although the comment made little difference to me, I recognized through discussion with my friend that part of why I felt safe was because of my connection to the conference organizers and the Community Working Group. I decided to make a formal complaint as if I were someone with no connections to the conference organizing team. As part of my complaint, I requested that a technical solution be put in place to allow future speakers to report session reviews they felt were abusive or inappropriate. The comment was only anonymous to me, not to administrators of the web site, so I asked that the feedback be left on my account so that the attendee could be monitored by the Drupal Community Working Group for further inappropriate comments.

In this example, the individual doesn't know that any action has been taken. The behavior wasn't corrected, and is likely to happen again in the future. In my situation, I felt that the infrastructure to support future speakers was more important than the specific incident. Publicly shaming the individual who had privately been unprofessional didn't occur to me as an option because the system is what I wanted to change. I didn't need support for myself; I wanted future speakers to be able to report unwanted comments easily and in a manner that did not reveal to the audience that they felt unsafe.

Conflict Resolution Checklist

It is difficult, if not impossible, to create a generalized checklist that will be perfect for every community and every type of event. There are, however, universal checkpoints when conflict can be mitigated and addressed within your community. To ensure the most positive possible experience for your community, you must tackle behavioral expectations before, during, and after indiscretions.

1. Clearly define acceptable behavior from the beginning. Because I live in Canada where the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act carefully defines good behavior, I generally assume that legal definition of expected behavior to be the universal definition of good behavior. In Canada, for example, we explicitly define equal protection and equal benefit for every individual "without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability." Note: this is every individual, not just every citizen. Implementing a Code of Conduct for your organization, community, or event outlines which behaviors are acceptable and sets expectations for current and new members.

2. Confront inappropriate behavior when it happens. Sometimes offensive behavior is intentional, but other times it is not. Immediately addressing the behavior directly with the perpetrator gives the person a chance to respond quickly and clarify their intention, and it allows them to answer the question: Were my actions intentionally meant to cause others harm? You don't need to be the target of the behavior to call out an individual for their actions. In fact, often an ally has an easier time calling out inappropriate behavior. When I requested a change to the speaker feedback system, for example, I didn't do so because I felt harassed, but rather I took action to improve the environment for future speakers.

3. Improve future interactions by evaluating your procedures regularly. We are part of communities because of shared passion and purpose. We want our communities to succeed and prosper, so putting in place the infrastructure for future community members to succeed is in our best interests. Help future presenters understand what is acceptable by providing a formal Code of Conduct and reviewing their presentations ahead of time. Help potential victims and allies by implementing a formal reporting system that does not “require” heckling or public confrontation.


The rallying cries I've seen online lately frustrate me. The actions we take when we are anonymous may not represent who we are. Many of our events take place online, or in jurisdictions that are not our homes. Our communities set up the equivalent of a court of public opinion. The accused are not given the luxury of being charged for their crime within the boundaries of the law, and thus are immediately denied the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty.

Personally, you and I can choose to be allies. We can choose to handle conflicts in the productive ways that I have outlined: set expectations, implement reporting systems and codes of conduct, identify bad behavior immediately and allow the perpetrator to correct themselves, and establish a framework that promotes successful interactions in the future.

In none of these actions do I allow myself to speak against an accused when I was not present for the incident. On occasion, I have probably broken my own rules. But being part of a community means extending respect. Just as I have acted in the face of bad behavior, I hope that others would call out my inappropriate actions, too. Providing micro-corrections can be difficult, and often letting things slide seems easier, but eventually the frog will boil, the community turns into a mob, and we are left stunned and confused about how we ended up where we are, and how we could have handled the situation better.

I expect others to help me when I misstep, but silence does not imply consent. I ask that my community does not condone my bad behavior. I ask that we, together, establish the rules on how to talk about these issues, and in so doing so, we can become the role models we want our community to have.

Please let us know additional suggestions for effectively handling community conflict in the comments below, or email your feedback to rikki@usenix.org.


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