I have mixed emotions about codes of conduct. I respect the right of any organization – public or private, for-profit or not – to create, maintain, and enforce codes of conduct. At the same time, I find the need for such standards depressing… especially in professional organizations.
I am and have been a member of professional organizations that have a code of conduct. I was a Microsoft MVP for five years and I am currently a member of the Professional Association for SQL Server (PASS). Both have codes of conduct (Microsoft, PASS). Both codes of conduct include an “Or Else” section. At the time of this writing, Microsoft’s section reads:
Microsoft reserves the right to remove any participant from the MVP Award Program for violating this Code of Conduct. In the event of a violation, the MVP Global Program Manager and MVP Lead aligned with the individual will review the situation. The final determination on whether to remove a person from the Program is made on a case-by-case basis. When an MVP is removed from the program, we retire the remaining benefits and his/her access to Microsoft resources.
A the time of this writing, PASS’s section reads:
If a participant violates this Anti-Harassment Policy, the conference organizers may take any action they deem appropriate, including warning the offender or expelling the offender from the conference. No refunds will be granted to attendees expelled from the Summit due to violations of this policy.
If you are being harassed, witness harassment, or have any other concerns, please contact a member of conference staff immediately. Conference staff can be identified by their “Headquarters” shirts and are trained to respond appropriately.
An Anti-Harassment Review Committee (AHRC) made up of the Executive Manager and three members of the Board of Directors designated by the President will be authorized to take action in response to an incident or behavior that violates the Anti-Harassment Policy.
For more information about incident reporting and review, please see the Anti-Harrassment Policy Process [sic]. If you have any questions about the PASS Anti-Harassment Policy, please contact PASS Governance.
If you follow the Anti-Harrassment Policy Process link at the time of this writing, the document contains the following section:
After being notified of a reported violation the AHRC [Anti-Harassment Review Committee] will make a reasonable effort to convene as soon as possible. The AHRC will make reasonable efforts to speak with all principals. No action will be taken until the AHRC has made a reasonable effort to speak with the person accused of violating the anit-harassment policy. The accused person will be offered the opportunity to review the allegations and respond to the AHRC
I want to be clear about something: I have little tolerance for harassment. I support a person’s right to express themselves. I put on a uniform and swore to protect those rights for citizens of the US in my younger years. The uniform no longer fits, but I still rally to support the right of an individual to express themselves (even when I personally disagree with what they are expressing… but I digress…). That said, I believe my – and everyone’s – rights end when they encroach on the rights of another.
Both policies do a fair job responding to the concerns of the offended. I like that PASS’s policy involves communicating with the accused alleged offender. A major tenet of the US justice system is the right of the accused to face their accuser. That right has been modified in edge cases – sometimes understandably so, sometimes not – but the idea that the accused has an opportunity to respond to the charges against them is fundamental. It makes sense, too. If you were accused of something you would want someone in authority to hear your side of the story before rendering a decision, wouldn’t you? I would.
And herein lies my concern: I see something akin to due process for the allegedly offending individual accused in the PASS code of conduct, but I do not see it in the Microsoft MVP code of conduct.
So my question is this: If a Microsoft MVP is accused of violating the code of conduct and the accusation is of a subjective nature (“no disrespectful behavior”, for example – not something objective like “no NDA violations”), is the allegedly offending MVP asked for their side of the story? I see that the MVP Global Program Manager and the allegedly offending MVP’s Microsoft MVP Lead review the situation. I also see the decision on whether to remove an MVP is made on a case-by-case basis. I don’t see any provision for input from the allegedly offending individual MVP. So… does it happen? Are they asked for their side of the story?
This isn’t my only concern.
I worry about statutes of limitations. I happen to know both of these codes of conduct were reactionary; they were written to prevent future behavior based on past incidents. How far back do they apply? They don’t say. So if it comes to light that a member of one of these groups committed an atrocious breach some years ago, what recourse – if any – does the offended have?
Conversely, I worry about ex post facto, as well. The MVP Code currently states:
7. Stay abreast of the Codes of Conduct. Microsoft reserves the right to amend or change the Code of Conduct at any time without notice. You agree to periodically review this document (http://mvp.support.microsoft.com) to ensure you are doing your part.
My concern is in regards to the timing of such changes and their application. Can Microsoft take offense at something (a blog post asking questions about their code of conduct, hypothetically), update the code of conduct, and then apply enforcement retroactively?
I worry about uniform application of codes of conduct. For example, if one person behaves in a way that gets them removed from a PASS Summit or kicked out of the MVP program and another person – who happens to be better connected to leadership in PASS or Microsoft – behaves in precisely the same way, and one is removed and the other is not; that’s a concern.
I can list more concerns but this post is long enough. My concerns are not with the existence of codes of conduct in professional organizations; they lie with upholding, applying, and enforcing said codes of conduct.
Not surprisingly, I think part of the solution is more transparency. Microsoft, PASS, and other professional organizations can take a cue from the way media reports about crimes: the names of those involved and many details of the accusation can be kept confidential. Informing the public is optional. Informing the membership is vital, I believe. Transparency works against back-room deals and shadiness due to an individual’s “connectedness” to leadership. It helps ensure uniform application of the rules to everyone. And knowing there is something akin to due process makes everyone feel better about the existence of a code of conduct.