Bad conduct: the root of the problem

More and more tech events are publishing codes of conduct. Although I think that it’s a good idea, I find it sad that we need to tell people things as basic as “treat others like you want to be treated”. I would like that in addition to treating the symptom, we understand and treat the root cause. Bad behavior incubates and spreads like a virus. We have a plague on our hands and we need to start controlling it!

Bad behavior existed since the dawn of man, but the Internet makes it easy to be offensive, mainly because the target is just a name or a profile picture. The interactions are less personal. Here are examples of bad behavior. I have personally been victim of ALL of these, as well as guilty of a few myself. Watch out for these both in others and in yourself.

Rape jokes

  • “Don’t drop the soap.”
  • “We totally raped your team.”
  • “He’d rape you if he knew that you listen to that singer.”

What’s really sad is that there’s no shortage of top ten lists.


  • Not leaving the person alone when asked to.
  • Directing derogatory comments at an individual. “You are an idiot.”
  • Using profane or indecent language, or make obscene suggestions. “He’ll stick his d*** up your a** if you say no.”

Yes, many insults are considered harassment by the law. As a side note, law exists to tell people how to behave in society, like telling people that they shouldn’t kill others, which is basically an expanded version of the ten commandments.

Intimidation and threat

  • “If you use that programming language, this is what will happen: (posts image of a person with a gun)”
  • “We’ll take your head off.”
  • Including partners, employers or clients in a disagreement to put the person’s livelihood at risk.
  • Suggest that harm may come to the person’s children.

Basically, if it can cause someone great discomfort, it’s intimidation. If it can cause fear, it’s a threat.


  • Directing comments with the intent of demeaning the person or using manipulative tactics to cause emotional distress.
  • Spreading gossip and rumors with the intent of making others dislike or hate the person.
  • Posting material to intentionally defame or humiliate someone (e-mail with cc, blog posts, wikis, forum thread, etc.)
  • Vandalizing the person’s website, or websites that talk about that person.
  • Tweet trash about people without addressing them directly, but instead referring to them through mentions and links to their websites (exposing).

This is not limited to teenagers as you might think. Even CEOs sometimes engage in bullying. I’m not joking.

In the real world

Seeing others behave badly on the Internet makes such behavior seem acceptable, eventually making it seem acceptable offline. This got so out of hand that we need to explain to people that it’s not ok to use sexual imagery during a presentation at a tech conference. I even had a user group organizer draw his knife twice during a meeting because someone mispronounced his group’s name.

But what if the target did something wrong?

No. The reason is irrelevant. Nobody has the right to be the judge and executioner. If you see someone doing any of those things, no matter the reason, no matter what the other person did wrong, remind them that it is NOT acceptable behavior. They can’t solve a war with more rockets. That’s a great metaphor, use it. You can even post a link to this article.

Yes, you will be accused of tone policing and such, but you don’t need to reply. Anybody who thinks that the end justifies the means is just part of the problem. The silent witnesses of the thread already heard you. The seed has been planted. If some replies bother you, unsubscribe, ignore, block, stop notifications.

Will we succeed?

Everybody can make mistakes and correct them. If you want people to open their minds to criticism, call out their mistakes it in a non-threatening and non-humiliating way. People don’t respond well when their ego is attacked. Give them the benefit of the doubt to increase your “conversion rate”.

If enough people call out bad behavior, it will seem less okay. People will start to question themselves. Together, we will slowly tip the balance and eventually won’t need to explain the basics of respect on our websites.

Related read: On ethics and optimism.

2 thoughts on “Bad conduct: the root of the problem

  1. Hello Anna,

    First word, I need to say that I like reading your articles that relates professional topics but always with a human point of view. I really appreciate this, thanks a lot.

    Now regarding your article, I must admit that I recognized myself between the bullying lines, mainly regarding gossips. And that hurts because I know it. I try to fight this but that takes some time.

    But as you said, even CEO get to this point one day or another. And here is the most important part in changing: the value of the example. From your first cry to your last word, you most of the time follow examples, which is the base of continuous improvement from my point of view. And for sure, with wrong examples, you probably do mistakes. You’re still responsible of course, but that’s exactly why this topic should be addressed by every one out there.

    And by having the good reactions, even though you’re at the bottom of what society calls “hierarchy”, you can be an example for others.

    As you speak French, I really invite you to read Matthieu Ricards’ book on altruism if you did not read it yet: “Plaidoyer pour l’altruisme”. It is a very interesting book to understand altruism and how it “works” using experiences, references to other authors and real life examples. This book really moved me.

    Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts and experiences, have a nice day.

    • It’s normal to recognize yourself in a few of those examples. It happened even to me while writing this. now I know exactly where I can improve. I’ll seek out the book you recommended. The reviews make me want to read it in the near future.

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