Imagine that you are organizing an event. You have been working for months to make it the best possible experience for everyone, the big day is finally here, speakers are ready to deliver their sessions, and attendees are starting to walk through the doors. Everything is finally coming together! Then you hear that one of your attendees has a history of stalking and harassing someone who is already at your event.
What do you do?
How would you handle a sensitive and difficult situation at your event?
I want you to think about this for a minute. Be completely honest with yourself.
Would you immediately take action? Would you know exactly how to handle the situation, what to do, who to talk to? Would you approach the offender? What would you say? Would you hear them out? Ask them to leave? How would you respond if they deny everything? If they tell you that the victim is lying and trying to ruin their life? If they tell you that they are the real victim? What if they cause a scene? Do you have on-site security to ask for assistance? Would you notify the victim? What would you tell them? Where would you go for privacy? What support would you offer? How would you follow up during and after the event if they are visibly scared or upset? How would you ensure their safety inside and outside the venue? Who would be taking care of your tasks while you are handling the situation?
Would you be handling the situation at all?
Would you brush it off as rumors and gossip and give the offender the benefit of the doubt?
Would you tell yourself it’s none of your business and hope that you won’t have to deal with any drama?
Would you think that as long as you don’t have any hard evidence, you can’t take sides?
Would you say that as long as nothing actually happens at your event, it’s not up to you to take action?
Would you act differently if the victim is someone you know? A friend? A speaker? A well-known person in the community?
Would you act differently if the offender is someone you know? A friend? A speaker? A well-known person in the community?
What would you do, really?
Most people believe, or want to believe, that they would be a hero in this story.
In reality, the discomfort you as an organizer will face in a situation like this is likely to make things… complicated. I have seen and heard and experienced organizers making all the excuses and having all the reasons for not taking action. Some thought they were doing the right thing by not getting involved in what they saw as a personal matter. Some just didn’t care as long as it didn’t affect them directly. Some were more afraid of how the offender would react than they were concerned for the victim’s safety. And some found it easier to accept speakers and attendees and even co-organizers withdrawing, than having to put themselves in an uncomfortable situation.
I can understand choosing the easy way out.
I don’t agree it’s the right way out.
As an organizer, you are responsible for your attendees and their safety. If you don’t take that responsibility seriously, should you be organizing an event at all? What if you are presented with information from multiple people, choose to do nothing, and then a serious incident happens at your event? Can you live with knowing that you could have stopped that from ever happening, but you chose not to?
Events are the most wonderful and amazing and fun experiences… until they’re not.
I know, because this happened at SQLBits. An attendee who had been stalking and harassing someone for years showed up unexpectedly. That someone was me.
What happened at SQLBits?
Before I continue, I want to make a few things clear.
First, I’m choosing to share a deeply personal story in hopes that my experiences and reflections can spark conversations and ultimately help our communities. This post could have been an entirely objective statement about the importance of codes of conduct, but to be absolutely honest… I want you to react to this. I want to provoke, to make you think, to make you feel uncomfortable. I want this to hit you hard enough to inspire change or action. A list of bullet points won’t do that.
Second, I’m not writing this for sympathy or for vengeance. This is not an invitation or encouragement to go on a public rant directed at anyone or any specific events. I don’t need you to feel bad for me, I don’t need you to fix this for me. I need you to focus on doing whatever you can to ensure that our communities are safe for everyone going forward.
And third, while this happened at SQLBits, it has nothing to do with SQLBits. This could have happened anywhere. However, I’m glad this did happen at SQLBits because they had a Code of Conduct, they had organizers who took this seriously, they had an on-site counselor, they had on-site security, and most importantly, I had most of my friends there.
How I experienced the situation
From the outside, I hope you saw a happy and enthusiastic Cathrine who enjoyed speaking, volunteering, hanging out with friends, and laughing in a silly purple Tetris costume. Those are the memories I choose to take with me from SQLBits.
What you may not have seen was the internal battle I was fighting the entire week. How I turned an even paler shade of white on the first day when I learned the person who had stalked and harassed me for years had shown up. The way I clenched my fists and dug my nails into the palms of my hands to be able to stay focused throughout the rest of my training day. The panic attack I had in my hotel room when I heard knocking on a door and thought that they had found me and I was trapped again. How I located all the emergency exits and made sure I always had an exit strategy - just in case. The embarrassment of asking friends to please walk with me between the venue and hotel because I was scared to walk alone. The casual conversations I had with the security staff so I had friendly faces to run to - if necessary. How I cried in bathroom stalls and felt relieved I was wearing a mask because it made my puffy face less noticeable. The multiple sessions I had with the SQLBits counselor trying to work through years of trauma in a few days. The deep shame of being a burden, making a fuss, feeling powerless, feeling like I was overreacting, and not being able to just get myself together.
Because what if the person was just there to attend? To learn and network and enjoy the conference, like everyone else? What if I was overreacting? What if I was so self-absorbed that I turned a normal situation into a drama centered around me? How could I justify asking for them to be removed so I could feel better, when nothing had actually happened at the event?
It was complicated. If I had these thoughts, how can I blame any organizers for thinking the same way?
How SQLBits handled the situation
SQLBits, thankfully, had a Code of Conduct:
“If you experience or witness unacceptable behaviour - or have any other concerns - please report it by contacting us. After filing a report, a representative will contact you personally, review the incident, follow up with any additional questions, and make a decision as to how to respond.”
While I was delivering the first half of my training day, the organizers received a report from someone who knew my history, and they took action. They talked with the person and instructed them to not approach me or make any contact with me. Then, they came to talk with me and offered support in multiple ways, including conversations with the on-site counselor. They checked in with me frequently. I felt like they did everything they could. Their decisions felt like the right ones, despite my raging internal battle.
The person, however, chose not to follow the organizers’ instructions. During the Friday party, a friend of mine came to see me. My friend had been asked by the person to try to convince me to meet them. They wanted to talk to me. Needed to talk to me. But hadn’t been able to get me alone during the week.
It was no longer complicated. The person was not just there to attend, despite having told the organizers exactly that. They were also trying to get hold of me - alone. I hadn’t overreacted. I had kept myself safe.
I alerted the organizers and they called a meeting to discuss what to do next. They asked me to explain what had happened. This is the only part I wish we had handled differently.
I told the organizers everything. How I on multiple occasions had asked this person to stay away from me and to stop contacting me. How they then bombarded me with phone calls, Skype calls, Skype messages, text messages, voice messages, Twitter messages, e-mails, physical cards, and even flowers delivered to my office. (If you think that’s a sweet gesture, try to imagine what it would feel like to get flowers from a person who scares the shit out of you with a message you find threatening, and then all your coworkers assume it’s a nice romantic surprise and asks you about it.) How they threatened suicide if I didn’t respond. Told me how cruel I was for treating them like this. Told me all of this was my fault and if I just talked to them they would leave me alone. I told the organizers about the time I got a bone-chilling message from my sister with a picture of her conversation with this person detailing how they had flown to Norway, rented a car, slept in the car outside my apartment the whole night waiting for me, and could she please ask me to meet them because they couldn’t find me? How I panicked and called my best friend to ask what do I do, I’m scared to go home, do I call the police? How I walked into my office lobby while still on the phone, felt a tap on my shoulder, and ended the call with “oh fuck, they’re here, I need to call you back”. How this person kept trying to get me to sit in their car. How they casually told me “do you know that your apartment balcony windows can be opened from the outside? I didn’t do anything, but you should probably fix that.” How I broke down in the office once I got the person to leave, and HR told me “we’ll take care of your project, you need to get on the phone with someone right now and stay on the phone the entire time, go home, pack the essentials, go to your parents, and stay there until it’s safe”. How this person made new e-mail addresses to “make sure I got their messages” because I had blocked them on all platforms. How I kept getting physical cards and letters in the mail. How relieved I was when the pandemic hit because I knew they could no longer get into my country. How I told everyone I had bought a new house because I enjoy renovating and wanted a new hobby, while the main reason really was because I no longer felt safe in my ground-floor apartment.
I told the organizers all of this, but I shouldn’t have had to. I told the organizers all of this, and some of them still weren’t sure what to do because nothing had actually happened at the event. I asked them to please confirm with my friend so they would know this was not all in my head, and I shouldn’t have had to feel that way. They chose to talk to my friend, and then the majority decided to wait until morning to do anything else. There was a party, there was alcohol available, we were all wearing silly costumes, and I understood why they wanted to deal with it the following day instead. I understood it, and I agreed with it. In hindsight, I regret it. I wish we had handled that part differently. I wish we had acted immediately.
Because when we walked back to the hotel that night, the person followed in the group right behind mine. At that point, I had barely held myself together for four days, I had been feeling terrified on top of all the normal conference and speaking stress, I had learned that the person did in fact intend to get hold of me, and I had just shared and relived private and difficult experiences. I had another panic attack and complete meltdown, not daring to go near the lobby or bar or elevators in fear of being seen or followed. I will forever be grateful for the two friends who held me, comforted me, made me feel safe, and got help from the hotel staff to escort me to my room through the hidden service elevators.
The next morning, the person was not allowed back into the event. SQLBits had made that consequence clear in their Code of Conduct:
“If a community member engages in unacceptable behaviour, the community organisers may take any action they deem appropriate, up to and including a temporary ban or permanent expulsion from the community without warning (and without refund in the case of any amount being paid to attend a community event).”
How the situation has affected me
It’s been over a week, and I still haven’t been able to return fully to work. I have barely slept. I’ve had nightmares and panic attacks. I still need follow-up sessions with the SQLBits counselor. All I ever wanted was to be left alone. I’ve kept my mouth shut for years to not cause any problems for this person. I’m scared of the repercussions of this incident. Of this blog post. Of them doubling down on the stalking and harassment to explain that I’m wrong and this is all in my head and that none of this has ever been stalking or harassment.
But you know what the worst part is? My story isn’t unique. It’s not even “serious” compared to other incidents.
And that makes me angry. I don’t want to go through this again. I don’t want to go through anything else. I don’t want anything to happen to anyone.
Why your event needs a Code of Conduct
A Code of Conduct explains what kind of behavior is encouraged and acceptable, and what kind of behavior is inappropriate and unacceptable at events. It’s a set of rules that everyone has to follow. The goal is to ensure that everyone can enjoy events while feeling safe and welcome.
The Code of Conduct is also there to help you as organizers.
By having a clear and explicit Code of Conduct, you can distance yourself from situations that might get complicated. It doesn’t matter if you know the victim or not. It doesn’t matter if you know the offender or not. You can simply refer to the rules that everyone agreed to when they chose to attend your event. If someone does this thing, you will handle it in this way, and they will face these consequences.
Why you need a plan and process for enforcing that Code of Conduct
That, however, requires you to also have a plan and process for enforcing your Code of Conduct. It’s not enough to simply state the rules, or outline a reporting process. If something happens, you need to know exactly what to do.
What proof will you need? Will you need to talk to witnesses? Will you give the offender a warning? When? How? Where? Alone? In a group? What will you say? What happens if they ignore that warning? One strike and they’re out? Three strikes and they’re out? Temporary removal from the situation? Immediate removal from the event? From upcoming events? A lifetime ban? How will you check future registrations? What information is stored about the offender? Stored about the victim? How? Where? For how long? Who has access to it? What if the offender is a speaker? What if something happens during a session? Will you stop their session? Cancel their remaining sessions? What if the offender is a volunteer? Sponsor? Another organizer? Will you offer a refund to the victim? Will you require a refund from the offender? Will you have to address this publicly? Has it already been discussed publicly? Will you notify other organizers of what has happened? What will you tell them?
Think of this like a disaster recovery plan. You hope you will never need it, you don’t ever want to need it, and you do everything you can to make sure you will never need it. But you have one. You have a disaster recovery plan because if something happens, you don’t want your first reaction to be running around in panic going “oh no, what do we do now???” You want to stay calm and go “ok, we are going to handle this by doing A, B, then C”.
That’s why a plan and process is, in some ways, more important than the Code of Conduct itself. Finding the right level of details in a Code of Conduct is difficult because offenders will always try to bend the rules. If the wording is too vague, offenders will argue that what they did is not explicitly unacceptable. If the wording is too explicit, offenders will argue that what they did falls outside of what is listed as unacceptable. Offenders will argue that they didn’t do anything wrong, that it’s someone else’s fault, that they are being treated unfairly, that you’re overreacting, that it wasn’t a big deal, that the victim should be flattered they are getting attention at all. Offenders will lie, try to bargain with you, manipulate you, laugh at you, threaten you, gaslight you, insult you.
Are you prepared for that?
Your responsibility as an organizer
Most events are wonderful and amazing and fun experiences. Most people are good. Most of the time, there is nothing to worry about.
Your responsibility as an organizer is to be prepared for the bad experiences, the bad people, and to take care of the worrying upfront so your attendees are safe to enjoy your event.
Review your Codes of Conduct. Think through all the questions I’ve thrown at you. Make a plan and write down the process - for yourself and your team. Assume that anyone who reports an incident tells the truth. Don’t make exceptions for any offenders.
Let’s make our communities and events safer for everyone going forward.
About the Author
Cathrine Wilhelmsen is a Microsoft Data Platform MVP, BimlHero Certified Expert, international speaker, author, blogger, organizer, and chronic volunteer. She loves data and coding, as well as teaching and sharing knowledge - oh, and sci-fi, coffee, chocolate, and cats 🤓