Codes of conduct: How do we write them?

After reading “Codes of conduct: Why do we need them?” I hope that I have convinced you that they are a useful tool to foster welcoming and healthy work environments to all members of a community.

In this second piece, I will recount the story of the code of conduct of the Physics and Astronomy department of the University of Sheffield. I will tell you why it took over 7 months between me sending the first draft and posters appearing on the walls. Finally, I will tell you what we learnt along the way, in the hopes that it may serve others.

The lessons learnt

I will start with this section because I hate cooking websites that put the recipes at the end of a very long and rambly personal tale. Of course, I encourage you to read the story of our code of conduct, but in case you are short on time and only want the practical side of things, here are the lessons we learnt.

  • Do you need a code of conduct or do you need to actively engage and publicise one that already exists?

As mentioned in the “story” part of this blog, the existing codes-of-conduct-like policies that pre-existed were either focused on undergraduate students or staff, and were university wide policies which, although necessary, did nothing to treat our department as one interconnected community that should, together, make the moral commitment to foster the best environment we could.

If your establishment has one of those buried on their website, adding to the policy jungle will do very little: maybe printing it out and championing it actively and visibly is what you actually need to do.

  • You do not have to be a Senior professor to drive the change that you want to see in your department.

If you are reading this, you can do it.

  • Essential Toolkit:

Patience and persistence: In my experience, the human element always induces delays and setbacks, and for good reasons: people are busy. Developing a CoC might be the most important thing in your life at the present time, but people have kids, students or even collaborators that have emergencies or deadlines. Be kind and be patient, but be persistent. Reminder emails are your friends, and don't  hesitate to go talk to people in person once in a while.

Allies: It is very likely that something like this will have to be agreed upon by a number of committees. If the people on these committees  are already in on it, the process should be painless. In addition to that, getting the opinion of others as you start writing the first drafts is extremely valuable, and they can help you proofread your document before you show it to someone important ;)

Google: I did not write a CoC from scratch, I researched pre-existing CoCs and saw a variety of options as far as length and wording are concerned. I then adapted what I’d learnt according to what I had in mind. Tip: look for CoCs that have a creative commons license on them that allows reproduction and modification. Astropy and LSST are good examples of that.

The story

The decision to push for a visible code of conduct sprouted naturally from a number of initiatives happening at departmental and faculty level. As a postgraduate representative to the Faculty I had brought up the issue of reporting bullying and harassment instances through channels independent of the affected departments. That got me thinking about how we could help prevent such occurrences rather than mitigate their effect.

Within the astronomy group, another person was asking that question: Richard Parker had started a review of the group’s research culture after the dire reports of the events that took place in the Institute for Astronomy at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. We had both seen the positive effects of visible codes of conducts and the difference they can make, so it was only natural that we would champion this idea.

In fact, we were not the only ones: when I started wandering the corridors of the department and knocking on doors in May 2018, asking how we could help prevent bullying and harassment, everyone independently brought up the same idea: we need a clear and visible code of conduct.

Consensus! Hurrah.

So I drafted one. Obviously, I didn’t do it from scratch, and I don’t recommend you do either: there is no need to re-invent the wheel. I started with resources I knew I could trust: first, the astropy code of conduct. This is the first visible code of conduct I was exposed to and that's why I started there. Additionally, it is under a creative commons license by attribution, meaning that you can use and modify their content at will so long as you credit them (to know more check this other blog). Then I did some googling and found the LSST code of conduct, which is in the public domain.

And I came up with the first draft that I sent it to the academics I’d been talking to get their feedback. By the end of June I was invited to our departmental Equality and Diversity committee to present the version you can see below alongside Richard.

During that meeting we were pointed to a pre-existing Code of Conduct. Now, I found that surprising because one of the first steps in the drafting process was to scour the University’s website for any trace of pre-existing code of conduct, policy or community guidelines. There were a few I could find, some tailored to undergraduates, others focused on work relationships rather but no all-encompassing call for people to not be unpleasant or nasty to each other.

That code of conduct we were pointed to was not only impossible to find upon thorough googling (the committee member who pointed us in that direction also told us how long it took them to come across that page), but it was specifically tailored to staff members.

Now, that is no good. In a department where academics, undergraduates and postgraduates co-exist, why isn’t there a single set of guidelines that applies to all members?

So I continued to work on the draft and send emails throughout the month of July. By the end, we’d gotten to the version shown below, and it would be presented in September at another Equality and Diversity committee. They made a  few more suggestions… and approved it!

Me and Richard then went to the Head of Department to present the result. He also made a few suggestions, asked that we incorporate elements of the CERN code of conduct, which he liked. After those modifications, I ended up with the final draft below.

After presenting it our Head of Department, he said he would show it to the executive committee in an upcoming meeting. By mid October they had given their support.


After that, things were taken out of my and Richard's  hands. We didn’t hear much about it until, in January 2019, these posters were put up on the doors and in the corridors of the department.

Our work is done…. For now.

Many thanks to Richard Parker for providing comments on this piece.

Thanks for reading!

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