Integrating a Code of Conduct

Sometimes you already have a code of conduct in mind when you start building a community. Other times, you just want to get the community started and worry about the details later. Either way, you need to establish certain cultural norms: informal understandings that govern the behavior of members of your community. A code of conduct allows you to formalize certain things but there are always gaps that need to be filled in by less formal, more ad hoc practices. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the things that have been successful for me in the communities that I’ve worked within.

Being clear about what you want is just as important as what you don’t want

When I was a lifeguard, the first rule that we were taught to enforce was “no running”. But we were taught to instruct people to “walk” instead of “don’t run”. In a noisy environment, like near a pool, the shorter command is more likely to be heard completely. Also, trouble-makers will try to claim that jogging isn’t running, so just being specific about what you want saves time.

Similarly, many of the newer codes of conduct incorporate sections that describe aspirational goals for the community as well as sections describing what behaviors aren’t appropriate. This is also something to keep in mind before enforcing the code of conduct becomes necessary. When you see things becoming tense, remind people to keep things positive. Suggest that people should find ways to work together and help each other rather than argue. A community is a group of people that supports each other in common goals, not just a gaggle of individuals thrown together by circumstance. And when people exemplify the kind of community standards you want, take some time to tell them that you appreciate it and find ways to celebrate it.

Be a positive role model

One of the best ways to establish the norms of your community is to be involved and lead by example. Let people see first-hand what a positive, helpful community member looks like by your interactions with them. Always be polite, especially in tough situations. Keep things classy and professional. Do your best to turn any interaction in a constructive direction.

In order to do this though, you’ll need to participate. You can’t influence a community unless you’re a part of it. Don’t be afraid to share your opinions or feelings, just be clear that is what you’re doing when doing so. It’s especially helpful if you admit when you’re wrong, make a mistake, or don’t know something. We’re all just people and humans are fallible. Your community will be more apt to forgive you the quicker you are to admit that you’re human too.

Follow through on enforcing rules

It’s not good enough to simply have a code of conduct. For it to be meaningful, it has to be enforced. GitHub’s own Open Source Survey in 2017 showed that negative interactions can have serious impact on an open source community’s long-term health. If you have a small community, maybe those opportunities are many months apart but they will come along. I recommend starting with an official warning. The warning itself doesn’t have to be public but there has to be some visible effect, such as a comment in a thread being deleted, so that others in the community know that something happened in response to the infraction. Enforcement should arrive as soon as possible after the infraction occurs, preferably within 24 hours.


These are some of the ways that I’ve incorporated codes of conduct into the various communities that I’ve been involved with. I believe they’ve had a significant positive impact when I’ve been diligent about applying them. Do you have experiences or techniques that you’ve seen be effective in creating social norms in groups or communities you have participated in? Let us know in the comments :+1: