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The Problem with Codes of Conduct and Harassment Training

It’s tough to see the systems that govern me fail to govern the behavior of others time and time again.

Even before the story about Harvey Weinstein broke in the popular news, organizations have been heavily focused on harassment training and developing or refreshing their Codes of Conduct. In droves, people are asking that their leaders put in place definitive language about intolerable behaviors and associated punishments for crossing the line. I don’t blame them.

Everyone’s heard the adage that Black folks and women have to work twice as hard to get half as far. It’s true, and it sucks. But now what’s really on our collective minds is, “What about my child? Is he going to be prey in this ‘racism is back in style’ world that we’re living in?” or “Is my sister/wife/friend/daughter going to be prey in this world that is so filled with sexual harassment and a flagrant disregard for codes of conduct that only the rich and famous can afford to speak up?”

codes of conduct training

Before we issue consequences we must ask ourselves if the consequences truly inspire the change we wish to see.

The challenge with Codes of Conduct is that they can sometimes overemphasize penalization instead of rehabilitation. We demand education on what not to do and articulate down to the word what we will not let happen ever again—at least without severe punishment. Last week I sat with a group of K-12 administrators for one of the most prestigious high schools in the area. These are smart and accomplished white folks. At least one of them had been “doing her own work” for more than 30 years. Two of them had just dedicated the previous three days to a session for white people committed to ending racism. Their intentions were honorable, without a doubt. Yet, these same people seemed a bit nervous. A parent group was demanding of them the expulsion of a student who used the N-word in reference to a classmate. Again, I get it. This is a big deal. But what would expulsion do to further their cause (ending racism, creating a more just and inclusive school environment, etc.)?

Codes of Conduct and harassment training are not inherently bad. They’re just not the answer.

Dualistic thinking is getting in our way. So is that fact that we are focusing more on what we will no longer tolerate than our aspirations. Parents are putting tremendous pressure on school leaders to demonstrate that they are committed to ending racism, and the only solutions that seem satisfying are more harsh sanctions for those who behave in ways that are or appear to be racist. What the what? Is that is? Really? It leaves people who want to do the right thing with their backs in a corner. Either I’m racist and will never “get it” or I’m punishing an impressionable teenager in a way that will probably lead him to a life of deep-seated racism.

Codes of Conduct Discussion

I think there’s another way: anchor to aspiration.

Socially just leaders need to take proactive steps to identify what they want, name it and pursue it. Complaining about what isn’t working doesn’t get us anywhere. Yes, we want to call attention to intolerables; but with much more fervor we want to articulate the future that we hope to build, together.

I turn on the news to see smart person after smart person lined up to speak in reaction to the latest Twitter or Facebook scandal. Wouldn’t it be great to hear a “thought leader” actually share thoughts proactively, and in a way that opens a path that is more constructive than the one we’re on? This can be you. We need it to be you! You can take this moment to reflect on what you want to create, to be part of, for your family or your organization, and then describe it.

Those parents who are so upset, employees who feel so marginalized, they need to know that you get it.

For many, the only way they know how to ask you to demonstrate you “get it” is by your willingness to act harshly against perpetrators. An even more powerful (and courageous) way for you to show that you get it, in my opinion, is for you to proactively speak up and speak out about your guiding philosophy and values.

My guiding philosophy is “anchor to aspiration.”

Everyone who knows me knows this about me. No matter the topic, I apply that philosophy to help me determine the most appropriate course of action for me. If someone says something that I find offensive, my philosophy helps me determine how I will respond. Getting into name calling with the intention of demeaning the other person while also taking a toll on my character does not fit with my personal philosophy.

code of conduct leadership

I aspire to model behavior that will encourage exploration beyond “right and wrong” and into “how” discussions.

I aspire to demonstrate what it looks like to give people the benefit of the doubt. I aspire to help people realize that it’s more strategic to create a teachable moment than to embarrass someone for not “getting it”. I aspire to create on-ramps for allies, rather than limiting myself only to my current resources; because my hope of ending oppression in every form is going to take all of us. My philosophy gets me through every choice I make in my life. And I bet you have one, too.

So what is it? What’s your guiding philosophy? What is your Code of Conduct? To what extent are you, as a Socially Just Leader, sharing it with others, in the service of your values and leadership goals? How does your philosophy inform the way that you communicate? Coach? Give feedback? Recognize and reward behaviors of others? Build and execute on strategy? Invest in your ongoing education? My challenge to you: step forward now. We need your voice.

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DeEtta Jones

DeEtta Jones is an invited speaker, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy consultant and author with more than twenty years of experience working with people from around the world to on personal effectiveness and building workforce capacity.

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