October 16, 2014

Back from the grave!

It’s the revival of I am not a SMOF

Originally, I had decided to stop posting to this blog because I’d gotten “back in the game,” and it felt a bit hypocritical. Then someone suggested that I keep blogging, but change the focus. I liked the idea, but quickly found that I didn’t have any spare time between work, my daughter, and starting up a new con. Well, one of those things has settled down a bit… most notably, my staff has grown in number for ConGregate, so I’m not doing quite as many things all at the same time.

Getting back to blogging did present another challenge… what to blog about. I’ve decided, at least for now, to cover topics that I think all con runners should deal with, even if we don’t think we should have to, due to some ideological notion of conventions and fandom.

Which brings me to today’s topic…

Harassment Policies

A lot of cons today have adopted harassment policies, which is a good thing. The issue I’m beginning to notice is that either the volunteers (staff and gophers) don’t have a clear understanding of the policy, or, even worse, they have never seen it.  The same holds true to the “rank and file” fan.

Hopefully, you already have an easy to understand policy and all of your staff is completely aware of it, and know how to handle harassment.  But if not, here are my recommendations…

If you are running a con, hold a harassment training session for all the key staff members. Make sure they understand that it’s a serious matter, and that they need to be aware of what the con has presented as the official company policy. For all other volunteers, make sure they get the policy in writing, either via email or print out, and make them sign a waiver stating they’ve read and understand the policy. 

Educating fans will be a bit more difficult, but you can still have the policy easily available to them via the web and/or program book, and you can have them sign a waiver stating they will abide by the policy. The tough part, of course, is making sure they know that they are required to live by the policy.

Now for the fun part of this issue, actually creating an effective harassment policy that people can understand. When my staff and I wrote the harassment policy for ConGregate, we did quite a lot of research on the topic. I was fortunate that my Programming Director, a.k.a. my wife, is a Human Resources professional with access to a lot of materials on the topic. Much of our research pointed to a single format. Basically, the key takeaways were, be specific about what harassment is, provide specific information on how to report harassment, and give your policy teeth, but do not get too specific in how you will deal with those who violate your policy. For last part, most of the lawyers seemed to agree that it’s best to avoid automatically enforcing a ban on people. It’s better to keep that as an option for repeat offenders, or for those who commit a truly heinous offense. Understanding that harassment runs a very wide gamut, from the socially inexperienced to outright hate crimes, will help you create a policy that’s fair and easily to understand.  Also keep in mind as you write your policy that the courts have ruled that harassment is defined by the victim, and not by the intent of harasser.

And, since I brought up repercussions for the person who violates your policy, I should probably mention how to best handle that part.

When someone commits an act that is in violation of your policy, you need to investigate the issue. I know, you’re not a cop (or maybe you are), but it has to be done. Start by listening to the complaint from the victim, being extremely careful not to blame the victim with your questions. Avoid saying things like, “did you do anything that made this person feel their actions were okay?” Just listen and get as many details as possible about who, when and where. Then, document the allegation. Next, sit down with the other party, tell them they have been accused of violating the harassment policy, and listen to their side. Depending on the severity of their actions, and also their reaction to the accusations, you will need to decide upon an appropriate response. For those who are truly clueless, I recommend educating them on how they should behave moving forward, and include a warning that future violations will get them tossed out. I also suggest you tell them that they should avoid trying to apologize to the victim, unless you, the con organizer, gain the victim’s permission first. For those who have no remorse, or get flippant with you when you inform them of the accusation, go ahead and toss them out, because that person isn’t likely to be open to education. Finally, let the accused know why you are tossing them out, and also tell them whether or not you plan to allow them back into the con in future years.

For the truly heinous actions, you might need to get the police involved, but I recommend allowing the hotel and the victim to make that decision. And yes, you need to report the person to the hotel if, in fact, they did something illegal.

One final note: effective harassment policies should protect everyone. I’m talking about everybody, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, race, religion, and even political viewpoint. Attacking someone over their politics is just as offensive as telling someone they are a fake fan. Neither of those comments is appropriate.


  1. HI James, I enjoyed your thoughtful blog entry! But I have questions/concerns about your last paragraph. Isn't there, in actual fact, a difference between sexually harassing or threatening someone and saying something rude about his or her politics? I feel that this idea of "fairness" is a potential problem in harassment policies because, in reality, the power differential between men and women, at least in many social contexts, is not equal from the get-go. It seems to me that it is easier to bully or harass someone in the minority. Your final paragraph about politics could make it pretty easy for a white male to argue "harassment" by a female, when in actuality there is no threat to the male in that situation.

  2. From a LEGAL stand point, harassment is defined by the victim… period. It doesn’t matter who the person is, only that they felt threatened, unsafe or significantly distressed by someone’s actions or comments. Simply saying something rude about their politics isn't harassment, but continually arguing or disparaging someone because of their beliefs is, if fact, harassment.

    What’s to stop someone from lying? Nothing. Consider this, though, for harassment policies to work, it requires companies to act as if every complaint is genuine. As a result, there is always going to be a risk that someone will file a false claim.

    The key is that conventions have to perform their due diligence and investigate the matter to best of their abilities. Once they have gathered all information available, they must decide on the best punitive actions, based on their investigation. Sometimes that might be a minor warning to the person who allegedly violated the policy, sometimes it’s a stern warning, sometimes the warning might be accompanied by trying to education the person, and sometimes it’s kicking that person out of the con.

    One final comment I like to make about this topic: there is a difference between harassment and assault. If someone corners a woman at a con and physically threatens her, that’s a crime and needs to be dealt with accordingly.