Guest post: Deciding if or when a harasser may return to an event

This is a series of excerpts from a post by writer and speaker Stephanie Zvan, advising conference organizers on how to respond when a person who harassed people at their event wants to return to the event. The post was prompted by Jim Frenkel’s attendance at the 2014 Wiscon feminist science fiction convention, after reports of harassment by Frenkel at the 2013 Wiscon and other events. These posts are excerpts from a post that originally appeared on “Almost Diamonds” at Free Thought Blogs. You can read part 1 of this post here.

Now, once you’ve decided to treat a harassment claim like any other health and safety issue, your main decision still remains. Do you or don’t you allow the harasser to remain at or return to your event? There are two main factors in deciding.

  1. Do you reasonably think the harasser will continue to violate your code of conduct?
  2. Will your guests reasonably feel safe if the harassers remains or returns?

The trick, of course, is defining “reasonably”. We’d all like to think we’re more reasonable than we are. Still, it’s possible to work through these issues.

Judging whether a harasser will stop violating your code of conduct

What kinds of things make it reasonable to think a harasser will stop? Here are a few:

  • They were unaware that their behavior was a violation of your code of conduct. This could be true if your code of conduct is not well publicized or the language is vague or ambiguous. Of course, if this is the case, the behavior in question would also have to be reasonably acceptable outside of your event. For example, groping someone, trapping them, and screaming in their face are all broadly condemned even outside of areas with codes of conduct. No one should be reasonably unaware that these behaviors are unacceptable. If the behavior in question is the sort of thing that would be hidden from bosses, organizers, or the respected voices of the community, a harasser doesn’t have a reasonable case that they “just didn’t know”.
  • They express understanding of their behavior and remorse about it. In the case of honest miscommunication that results in harm to one of the parties, the person who caused the harm should also be upset. They should accept that what they did caused harm, and they should want to prevent causing more harm by repeating the behavior in the future. If they aren’t remorseful, then they consider their original behavior to be justified and are more likely to repeat it.
  • They understand and accept the consequences that apply to their behavior. This is sometimes easier to see in the negative than the positive. Someone who argues that they shouldn’t receive consequences or, worse, that you “cannot” apply consequences to them feels entitled to your spaces and your events. They don’t see that their access is legitimately tied to and dependent on their good behavior. This can be a particular problem when a harasser is friends with decision-makers. Communicating to that friend that what is happening needs to be taken seriously is far more difficult in that situation than it is when it’s not mixed with cozy interpersonal relationships.
  • They don’t have a pattern of unacceptable behavior. One event may be a fluke. More than one event, even if every one of them is a “miscommunication”, points to an underlying problem. In order to reasonably believe that a harasser’s behavior will change in these circumstances, you’ll need to see some kind of evidence that the underlying problem has been addressed.

Notice that I suggested you should apply a different standard to guests at your events than you apply to yourself as an organizer (feeling vs. thinking). There are two reasons for that. The first is that, as an organizer, you’re privy to more information about a harassment complaint than your guests are. The second is that your guests have signed up for a different kind of experience than you have.

When you agree to organize an event, you take on extra responsibilities that your guests don’t have. They’re at your event to have a good time, socialize, and (depending on the nature of your event) learn something. You’re there to facilitate that. This means you take on a responsibility to consider their experience as it is, not as you think it should be. In other words, you may feel that your guests or potential guests are being irrational about a situation, but that won’t stop them from deciding they don’t want to show up. People get to stay home if they want to. It’s up to you to make them want to attend instead.

Judging whether other attendees will feel safe with the harasser attending your event

What kinds of things make it reasonable for guests to feel safe with a harasser attending your event?

  • They trust you to handle violations of the code of conduct promptly and fairly. People are more comfortable taking risks when they have backup. Attending an event with a harasser is a risk. If you ask them to take that risk for you, you have to show them that you’ve earned that trust.
  • They can avoid the harasser at little cost to them. This gives people control of their interactions with the harasser. If you put the harasser in a position of authority or require people to interact with them in order to access a service at your event, they won’t feel they can maintain their safety without unreasonable costs. Volunteer-run events sometimes argue that they need the volunteer, but I’ve yet to see one account for the volunteers they’ll lose by handing power (yes, volunteer positions involve some degree of power) to a harasser.
  • Their prior interactions with the harasser are not painful to recall. To be blunt, you may well have to choose between having a harasser attend your event and having the person or people they harassed attend. Dealing with memories spurred by seeing one’s harasser, or someone whose harassing behavior you witnessed, does not make for a pleasant event experience. If people don’t want to cope with that, you can’t require them to. Attempting to shame them for it won’t work and will only lead to the impression that you care more about the prestige or financial success of your event than the people who make it what it is.
  • They know what to expect. Surprising your guests with the attendance of someone they believe to be a harasser is not a good idea. Yes, your hands are tied with regard to how much information you can safely share about a harassment investigation and follow-up without incurring legal liability. Nonetheless, issues that get broad attention, as so many do right now as we figure out as communities how they should be handled, will require basic communication now or more communication in more detail later. If you have the staff to handle a storm of bad PR, you should have the staff to get out ahead of the problem.

That isn’t a long list of requirements for successfully reincorporating a harasser into a space they’ve abused. As much as some people like to suggest that nothing a harasser can do to be allowed back, these are not impossible hurdles. That doesn’t mean they’re not tricky to navigate in practice, but the principles that make people likely to be safe in reality and make them subjectively feel safe are not rocket science. They don’t require divination. They don’t require reading people’s minds or bowing to unreasonable demands.

And if you’re an organization facing these problems and feeling like you’re swimming in treacherous waters, there are people who want to help. We’ve been working on this issue, in our organizations or with multiple organizations on a consulting basis. We are invested in people starting to get things right. We want the good examples for everyone to follow. We want good decisions that, while they aren’t going to be comfortable, are going to make things better for all the people who aren’t part of the problem.

Let us help you get things right, because ultimately, it’s going to be you who bears the blame and criticism if and when you get it wrong.

You can continue reading the original post here.