Against the Code of Conduct

Note March 2, 2019: I’m incredibly gratified by the response to this post. A number of you have reached out about codes of conduct at your meetings or in your labs. I’m thrilled. I am also neither paid to address this, nor an expert in it. I’m asking for a little bit of help managing requests for comments. If you could email requests for comments to my personal email (wright [dot] aprilm [at] gmail [dot] com), and not my work email, I would really appreciate it. Thank you!


I had a little bit of time while waiting on a meeting, so here’s a hot take: Codes of Conduct are overused, ineffective, and enable abuse. Here’s why and how I edited mine.

tl; dr:

1. Codes of conduct should work with institutional resources, not divert people away from them.

2. Your code of conduct needs a mechanism to call bullshit on you.

3. You should think carefully about what your code of conduct is meant to do, and if the consequences and reporting mechanisms accomplish that.

The Origin Story

Of course there’s an origin story with something like this. We don’t see the cracks in the system until we’re falling through one.

A couple years ago, I found myself with a gendered bias problem. I was at a workshop, and found myself being somewhat mistreated when trying to make normal and appropriate use of a lactation space. I ended up having some mastitis problems as a result of the access issues, and pumping took longer and longer. One afternoon, towards the end of the workshop, I got back really late from pumping. I knew I was taking a long time, so I tried to keep up with the installs while pumping. I came back, and put up a red sticky note to ask for help, because my installs failed. Apparently there had been more instructions while I was away.

So the PI of the host lab came over the help me. And by help, I mean make things exponentially worse. He got way too close to me way too quickly. He put his hand on my computer, blocking my ability to move, and yelled at me. When I think about it, I can still feel the heat of his torso over my shoulder, the feeling of his breath in my hair as he lost it at me. I don’t understand it. Install problems are part and parcel of bioinformatics. I can’t connect with this type of anger, and I’m very afraid of it. I just don’t understand what happened.

It took me about a year to even report the anti-nursing mother behavior. It took another before I could find the words to talk about how intimidated and frightened I felt by the PI’s conduct. The situation was so incredibly fucked. I couldn’t deal with it. My husband didn’t even know this happened until years later. When I did report the behavior, I found myself in a bit of a pickle. The lab code of conduct meant I was reporting to the person who did the code of conduct violation. And that person was not super receptive to the idea of making changes to avoid situations like this in the future.

That wasn’t what I expected, at all. I had known the PI for years at this time. He was someone I kind of looked up to, and considered an example of the type of scientist I might like to be. I expected that he would do something. Change something, something to show me that he wasn’t an actual threat to my physical safety, or that of other women. He refused.

That put us at an impasse. What do you do when you have information that someone might be an actual threat to other women? I was torn apart by guilt, and fear, that I’d be responsible if the next time it isn’t just a good old fashioned “cornering and screaming at a woman ’til she has a panic attack.” I was talking to a good friend, and she snapped it into perspective. She asked me what I would do if one of my female students came into my office doing what I was doing. What if a student came into my office and sat across from my desk, sobbing in abject terror at even potentially having to interact with a specific male PI? What if a female student described being intimidated at a workshop?

And the answer is that I would get to work. I needed to get to work on supporting students and creating the culture I want to see. The culture that would make me feel safe. That is why I am speaking out. My students deserve kindness. So do I. This blog post is stitched together from several entries in a journal I wrote during a major PTSD relapse. It is from my heart, as I attempted to recover from being abused by a powerful person.

What even is a code of conduct?

Codes of conduct make explicit behavioral expectations for members, and consequences for violations of those behavioral norms.

So what is the problem with that?

Nothing, really. It’s the way in which they are deployed that is the problem. I see codes of conduct occupying several niches:

  1. Secondary insurance. I was recently rear-ended in traffic. While my insurance company battles it out with the other driver’s insurance, my secondary insurance covers the deductible. I see codes of conduct much in the same way. Most universities have a code of conduct, but they are often nebulous. Mine does. Southeastern defines “acts of bias” as against the code of conduct. That’s great, but is a one-off comment an act of bias? How many of us have been told by someone that an incident wasn’t “that bad” or the person who said something “wasn’t really *ist”? Do not-that-bad incidents count? I see a code of conduct as a way to define additional activities I don’t want to see in my lab group, and as giving me standing to address conduct that might not rise to the level of an official violation.
  2. A backstop. University policies can be really confusing when abuses happen off-campus. And even if it is crystal clear that an event is covered by policies at individual campuses, if you need help immediately, you need help immediately. And if there is no representative of your campus, that doesn’t make the need for help vanish. Conferences should have a code of conduct to ensure that participants are safe, by way of specific reporting procedures to specific personnel.
  3. Avoiding pass-the-trash. ‘Pass the trash’ is something we hear about in science. Someone engages in conduct deemed unacceptable by a university, subsequently leaves the university, goes somewhere new, and the cycle starts again. Codes of conduct can help us make our spaces and meetings safer by making it clear that they are not refugia for misconduct, free from oversight.
  4. A statement of values. The conduct you permit is the conduct of which you approve. End of story.

The real problem is when a code of conduct is used as the be-all and the end-all of reporting. Most of us mean well. I even think the PI involved mostly means well. But most of us are probably going to have a hard time calling bullshit on a close collaborator, friend, partner, or ourselves. And, in fact, most of the worst harassment situations I’ve witnessed have been made infinitely worse by someone standing in the middle, telling everyone to calm down, have a cup of tea, and talk it out. And this is at the core of what happened to me: a code of conduct shouldn’t be used to rout problems away from solutions with teeth, like going to a Title IX board. But that’s exactly what happened here. The PI felt like he could tackle the issue on his own (attributing good faith here). I’d known him a long time and trusted him to do that. He was not up to that task, as many of us wouldn’t be if we found ourselves in that situation. After a couple years of no solutions, I got frustrated, and tweeted at him about it. He wrote a blog post. I responded. Another faculty member at UC Davis tweeted some retaliatory ugliness at me. Obviously, an all-around good ending to the story.

This is the ending we get when solutions rout victims away from real, meaningful solutions. We must exercise clarity in delineating responsibilities bestowed by our role as officers of our codes of conduct and responsibilities bestowed by our roles as representatives of the universities that employ us. If this had gone through a university conduct board, there would have been a defined time frame by which the matter would have been handled. This situation where labs roll their own code of conduct has the potential to take an abusive instant, and stretch it over days, months, and years.

Now what?

It’s hard not to see how that dynamic could replicate. If a student or visitor in my lab experienced misconduct, would they feel obligated to handle things internally out of loyalty? Would I do the right thing? Would I know how to take the right steps? This whole situation was such an object lesson in how not to be. I would be crushed if I learned a student kept misconduct bundled away because of their relationship with me.

I revised my lab’s code of conduct this last week to make it more obvious what is and what is not in my hands. It’s important to me to be crystal clear that my lab’s code of conduct is not a replacement for institutional policies. It’s here to provide an even higher bar for what I expect of my students and myself. I needed it to be clear that I am a Title IX responsible person, and that has implications for how I handle misconduct. I needed to make it clearer that I am an advocate, but I am a human with limitations, and there are times when I must recuse myself.

It’s worth noting that the US Title IX structure can both help and hurt in these circumstances. Confidentiality means that if I pass a report on, it may never be made public (pass-the-trash). Additionally, people who are marginalized may be uncomfortable immediately escalating their complaint to a state actor. Is “responsible person”/”mandatory reporter” helping or hurting?

Now now what

I’m discouraged by this whole thing. Your allies will fail you, and rally other powerful folks to publicly mock you. Should labs even have codes of conduct? Should we just give up? I look at my undergrads, and they’re so young. And sort of naive. What am I doing, recruiting them into a broken system? Between that question, and like, concerns about the reality of phylogenetic models, I haven’t been sleeping a lot. The baby also might contribute some to that;)

At the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as heartened as I did in the days after I went public about these issues. The most helpful words people said were “I hope you’re OK. Here is what I’m going to do to make things better where I am.” Evolutionary biology is full of amazing people who just aren’t interested in enabling misconduct.

I would love feedback. Should we have lab codes of conducts? What is the role of a code of conduct? How can we ensure our students and colleagues are apprised of all the resources at their disposal to handle misconduct?

2 thoughts on “Against the Code of Conduct

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful, important post, as always!

    I can see a use case for lab codes of conduct, but there is overlap with university codes, as you say. In practice, what I’ve done is have guidelines ( that link out to university info, but only talk about in detail about lab-specific things (there’s a university policy on harassment, but not on authorship, so the page has the latter detailed, for example). [describing what I have done, not saying this is how we should all do it]. I agree with the worry about lab codes taking over for proper reporting: I’ve heard of lab codes that discourage talking to Title IX but instead reaching out to the PI’s friend of a different gender, ones that say never involve police, etc. Treatment of victims by police, Title IX, can range from ok to horrible, so I understand some caution and why some potential reporters would choose not to take these routes, but “don’t tell anyone with power over me about issues in my lab” seems like a bad policy that pops up in lab codes sometimes. In such cases, not having a lab code but instead having just the university code may be better. Given how dispersed reporting structures are, minimally having a central listing of all support services (reporting, mental health, etc.) for lab members seems like a great idea. One thing I’ve been wondering about is listing outside attorneys as resources — not as an endorsement, but “these attorneys have handled immigration cases, these have handled harassment cases, so you might reach out to them” could be useful given their importance in the process, though local bar associations *should* have such lists already.

    One great thing about your lab code that a listing of resources would lack, as does my current page, is a statement of expectations — here’s how we treat each other. Besides codes of conduct, I’ve seen this in places like Stacey Smith’s website: Tying it to reporting structures that can lead to consequences for anyone, including the PI, is important.

    Btw, one nuance that could be explored later is lab codes vs workshop (or meeting) codes. Everyone in a lab (probably even visitors) is subject to the university policies, including its codes, so pointing to them, with lab-specific additions, might be ok. It’s fuzzier with workshops or other meetings hosted at a university: at a workshop at college X, a professor from Y harasses a student from Z: title ix office at X or Z universities has no actual power over the professor from Y, and by the time everyone figures out jurisdiction and starts justice rolling the workshop might be over, with bad behavior continuing throughout it. So for short term events with people from various organizations, I’d argue a code of conduct with ways to act quickly and fairly, which all attendees must sign, and which can have consequences for anyone, including organizers, is pretty essential. [I imagine we agree on this (though curious to hear your thoughts), and this post was about lab codes specifically, but bad behavior at workshops is clearly relevant].


    • Thanks so much for your comments, Brian. And sorry this took me so long to get back with – somehow, your comment went to spam, and I didn’t realize I don’t get notifications for the spam folder. For a tech savvy person, I really have no idea what the internet is.

      > Besides codes of conduct, I’ve seen this in places like Stacey Smith’s website: Tying it to reporting structures that can lead to consequences for anyone, including the PI, is important.

      Thanks for this suggestion; I’ve made this edit. I had that page, but hadn’t tied them together. Now I’ve added a heading indicating some people they could contact if the mentor-mentee relationship is just a little off. Not code of conduct violating, but needs a tune-up. Who could they approach so all three of us could sit down and strategize getting back on track?

      > So for short term events with people from various organizations, I’d argue a code of conduct with ways to act quickly and fairly, which all attendees must sign, and which can have consequences for anyone, including organizers, is pretty essential.

      I definitely agree with you. I see my lab code of conduct as being a mixture of all four of the models I list, with number 4 (statement of values) probably being the most important, since as you note, the university has enforcement that I’m plugging in to. I think for workshops/meetings/etc., model 2 (backstop) probably becomes the most important. If someone needs help, we can’t be sitting on our hands, wondering if we should be calling the Home Office. Certainly, that has implications for how we think about laying the code of conduct out – reporting, resources, etc. While a meeting code of conduct should never discourage anyone from seeking institutional support, it can’t be as specific about institutional resources and help as a lab code of conduct can.


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