Creating the Perfect Anti-Harassment Policy

First, my apologies, as this isn’t strictly related to either activism or programming, but it touches on both. Recently, the programming community has been talking about anti-harassment policies in light of a recent incident.

More recently, my animal rights group, Compassionate Action for Animals, was confronted with the need to create our own policy. Having a public policy in place is important. It makes it clear that the conference/organization takes harassment seriously, and provides a clear direction on how to report alleged harassment.

In the case of my animal rights group, the issue is a little different than with a conference. Conferences take place over a short period of time and they attract a large group of people, many of whom have never met before. In contrast, my animal rights group attracts volunteers and event attendees who we see repeatedly, many of whom stay involved for months or years. Over time, many of the people involved with the group will have repeated contact with each other. Our policy addresses both harassment and general interpersonal disputes.

While thinking about CAA’s policy, I realized that there are several basic scenarios which could lead to a complaint. In each scenario, Person A will be the person who is the alleged harasser, and Person B is the alleged victim. Each scenario has a different ideal outcome.

  • Case 1 - Person A has done something criminal to Person B, such as a physical assault, threat of assault, or stalking. In this case, the best approach is to encourage Person B to contact the police. We should also ask Person A to refrain from contact with the organization until the situation is resolved.
  • Case 2 - Person A is acting out of malice and is knowingly causing Person B to suffer, but their actions are not criminal. Person A is a sadist, and we don’t want them involved with our organization in the future. This is going to be fairly uncommon, but when it happens we need to deal with it decisively. Poisonous people can really hurt an organization.
  • Case 3 - Person A is unknowingly causing suffering to Person B, and their behavior is generally agreed to be unacceptable. This case is going to be more common than cases 1 and 2. The ideal outcome is for Person A to understand why their behavior was problematic, change their behavior, and to stay involved with the organization. However, if Person A refuses to change, they will be asked to leave.
  • Case 4 - Person A is unknowingly causing suffering to Person B, and the acceptability of their behavior is debatable. This case will also be reasonably common. In this case, the ideal outcome is for Person A and Person B to come to an agreement between the two on how they can get along in the future. If they can’t, we still want both of them involved in the organization, but we may need to ensure that we don’t force them to work together.
  • Case 5 - Person A is unknowingly causing suffering to Person B, and their behavior is generally agreed to be acceptable. This case will not be very common. I hesitate to say that Person B is “too sensitive”, since suffering is suffering, but in this case it’s really Person B that is the problem. Any social interaction risks friction, and if Person B cannot tolerate any friction, there is not much the organization can do. In this case, the ideal outcome is to help Person B be a little more tolerant so that they can stay productively involved with the organization. It may also be possible to find tasks that Person B can do alone.

Since three and four are probably the most common cases, our policy should focus on dealing with these in the best way possible. Our ideal outcomes in these cases involve keeping everyone involved in the dispute working with the organization.

However, it’s important to remember that when a complaint is initially made, we really don’t know enough to categorize the complaint, except in the case where the complaint alleges criminal behavior (Case 1). Given that fact, CAA’s current draft policy contains the following goals:

  • CAA wants to be a safe and inviting environment for all participants.
  • We want to respect the concerns of all activists, with attention to fairness and confidentiality.
  • As a social justice organization, we strive to be sensitive to issues such as sexism and racism.
  • CAA wants to maintain neutrality and resolve disputes amicably where possible.

Given these goals, our policy focuses on avoiding the need to appeal for a “judgement”. We need people to be able to work together and resolve disputes if we are going to be effective as an organization. We assume that everyone involved is a reasonable adult, and that they want to get along with each other in pursuit of a common goal. Especially in situations like Cases 3 and 4, we think it’s best for people to simply talk to each other.

We also want to avoid taking sides. If Case 4 is common, it’s reasonable to think that both parties involved may be “right”. We want to make sure that both Persons A and B are given a chance to participate in the process, and our procedure encourages a mediated discussion between the parties before the board will intervene, although we don’t require it, since we can’t really force people to talk to each other.

Compare this to corporate policies, which focus on covering the corporation’s ass against a lawsuit. These policies are full of legalese, and aren’t really oriented towards helping people get along. The policies focus on warnings and judgements, and don’t encourage mediation. This is unfortunate, as it doesn’t do much to help create a more civil society.

Conferences have different needs. They’re short-term, so it’s important to deal with things quickly. Unlike an organization, a conference doesn’t rely on the same people interacting with each other repeatedly over a long period of time. If someone might be causing a problem, it’s important to deal with that quickly in order to keep the conference fun and safe for everyone else. That means that speed becomes more important relative to fairness, though fairness (and the perception of fairness) are still important.

Ultimately, there’s no such thing as a perfect policy. People are imperfect, and there’s too much behavior that falls into a grey area. For people whose behavior is truly unacceptable, we want them to understand how their behavior affects others. When the conflict is greyer, we want both parties to adjust their behavior. The ideal outcome in most cases is for the people involved to keep working together comfortably in the future.