The "Don't be a Dick" code

November 6th, 2018 - Rant & Ideas

After reading the recent reporting on the SQLite code of conduct I thought it might be fun to take a punt at a code of conduct based around the “Don’t be a Dick” philosophy. Should be fun!

Note: I’m just doing this for fun. No real human should consider this a sensible contribution to the CoC-making world. It’s just a nice thought-experiment.


Sometimes people take things too seriously. Codes of conduct are just one potential example of where a group or business can “over formalise” their culture. Sometimes it might be really important to have a solid CoC, but sometimes something flexible and more ad-hoc might work way better. Do what works for you. Similar to the Agile Manifesto, a working but undocumented process is better than an out-of-sync documented one.

One suggestion if you want to keep it MVP: trying something informal like this first to see if it fixes whatever problem has caused you to think of giving it a go in the first place. And if it doesn’t keep formalising it until it does.

First of all. The code should have one, and only one, rule.

Don’t be a Dick*

It’s the golden rule, and all discussion and arbitration of incidents should always be derived from it. Behaviour is considered to be contradicting the code of conduct if (and only if) “the group” considers it to be “dickish”.

Documented examples: Whilst these shouldn’t just mirror different types of rules (because then you’re just doing a normal CoC), they should be clear and real-world examples of some things that are considered dickish/non-dickish behaviour. The key here is to have some clear lines drawn in examples that people can then extrapolate from.

Some (admittedly silly) examples:

Regular retrospectives: No sensible process survives without retrospectives. Groups change, circumstances change & environments change. This means that what your group considers to be ok and not ok will also change and evolve over time (especially if the group size grows). Pick a frequency that’s right for the group and see how it goes. If you need to do it more or less then change the frequency.

Don’t be a dick about people being a dick: Despite all the steps in the process, it’s inevitable that someone will break the rule. The important thing is (just like any fuck-up) to not blame the person, blame the process. Unless the person is truly a dick (in which case kick them out of the group sharpish), the likelihood is that you didn’t retrospect/document well enough or often enough, meaning that some or all of your group are getting their dick-o-meters out of sync.

Make sure to discuss it initially. Run a postmortem to work out how and why you got out of sync, and get a consensus from the group on any details needed to prevent the dickishness from reoccurring. Treat it as a learning opportunity, then move on and don’t dwell on it. Any mocking of the dick-ee should be light-hearted and last no longer than a week.

Have a laugh about it: The main benefit of being so foul-mouthed with the process is that it’ll encourage discourse in your group and bring peoples’ guard down so that they’re more likely to discuss it openly. Proper discussion between peers about what could be really difficult issues is only ever a good thing. As such, if your group aren’t smiling and coming up with some silly examples of dickheadery then you’re probably doing it wrong.

Large groups will never agree, which means that you’ll never come to a consensus with any practical level of efficiency (just look at every political system ever :P). It’s likely that this will pan out at “tribe”-limits, so, depending on how homogenous the characters in your group are you’re looking at anywhere from 80-120 members max.

What the group considers to be dickish WILL change. Even if a group agrees now, all groups change over time (even if the members stay the same their environment definitely doesn’t). The “consensus” will need updating fairly regularly, and my guess is that frequency will increase exponentially with group size.

Laws and the real world: I really do think that this kind of code of conduct can be a good way for smaller groups to get the benefits of a CoC, without having to write a bunch of overly-verbose semi-legal waffle that’ll often get ignored. I also suspect that people like lawyers, employment tribunals, media organisations, funding groups and potential business partners are all very likely to disagree. Standard reminder that this is not advice, I am not a lawyer & these are just my thoughts on a fun thing to try.

* I’ve chosen “dick” because I think it’s funny. You can replace it with any mildly offensive word that you want. It just has to be mildly offensive. Because it’s funny.