SF/F Convention Harassment Policy Starter Kit

I’ve written many times before about reporting sexual harassment in SF/F, and about the problem of harassment at SF/F conventions. While I think it’s important to talk about the problem, and to hold conventions and individuals accountable when they mess up, it’s also important to recognize the things folks do right, and to help groups improve. To that end, and with the help of some friends, I’ve tried to put together a “starter kit” for conventions wanting to create or improve their harassment/safety policy.

My thanks to Rose Fox, Cheryl Morgan, Kathy Chung, and Seanan McGuire for their comments and suggestions.


1. What’s the goal of a convention harassment policy?

  • To help all attendees and staff feel welcome, valued, and as safe as possible.
  • To define and discourage harassing, abusive behavior.
  • To make it as safe and simple as possible for people to report harassment, if necessary.
  • To clearly establish for staff and attendees how reports of harassment will be handled.
  • To set fair consequences for such behavior.

The existence of a clear, published harassment policy sends a message. So does the lack of such a policy. Harassment is a real and ongoing problem, whether you’re talking about a huge media-oriented con or a smaller “professional” event. Choosing not to publish a policy on harassment can suggest that your event doesn’t take sexual harassment seriously, and may turn a blind eye to such incidents.

Defining harassing behavior sets a clear expectation of what will and won’t be tolerated, and can help to prevent common excuses like, “He’s just socially awkward and didn’t know he was harassing her.”

A sexual harassment policy lets attendees and volunteers know how seriously your event intends to respond to incidents. Having a written policy in place beforehand also makes it simpler for people to know how to report, and gives staff the information they need on responding to reports.

2. What should a convention harassment policy include?

The Geek Feminism Wiki has several sample harassment policies that may be helpful to review. No one policy is appropriate for all conventions, but typical policies should include:

  • A definition of harassment.
  • A clear statement that harassment is not tolerated at your event.
  • Instructions on how to respond to and report harassment.
  • Information on how staff will respond to reports of harassment.
  • A statement of the potential consequences for anyone choosing to harass others.

Cheryl Morgan suggested the following, which I hadn’t considered, but agree with: “The policy should make it clear that the victim’s wishes will be respected. It is better to have incidents reported and to take no action, than to have the incidents not reported because the victim has reasons not to want action taken.”

From a sample policy at the Geek Feminism Wiki:

“Harassment includes offensive verbal comments [related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, [your specific concern here]], sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention. Participants asked to stop any harassing behavior are expected to comply immediately.”

ISFiC’s harassment policy includes the following statement of potential consequences:

“Windycon and ISFiC reserves the right revoke the membership of anyone failing to conform to the letter and spirit of these policies, those of our hotel, and the laws of the City of Lombard and the State of Illinois.”

Readercon’s website includes a list of possible consequences, up to banning the harasser from the con and from future events. The same page provides information on how to report harassment, as well as a link to their internal procedures for handling reports.

3. Where and how should the harassment policy be published?

  • On the convention website.
  • In the program book.
  • At the event.
  • In internal (con staff) material.

The nice thing about a website is that you have more room to work with. You can lay out the full details of your policy, as Readercon has done. Many people will check out your website when deciding whether or not to attend your event. As many in the SF/F community saw with the run-up to the 2013 World Fantasy Convention, if your website lacks a harassment policy, people will notice.

The program book should also include your convention’s harassment policy. If you don’t have as much space, you might choose to print a summary with a link to the website for more information. But the program book should include the main points.

Of course, lots of people don’t read the program book, which is why it’s a good idea to mention the harassment policy elsewhere. Reference it during opening ceremonies. Post flyers at the convention. (There are some slightly blurry sample flyers from CONvergence here.) Include a copy of the policy at the registration desk

If you have a central phone number and/or email address for reporting harassment, make sure that’s publicized as well.

4. What should the convention do if someone reports harassment?

I’m not a conrunner, and have less information about the behind-the-scenes operation of conventions, so I’m drawing heavily from the Geek Feminism Wiki’s page on how to respond to reports of harassment and input from friends for this section. (Any mistakes or omissions are my own.)

Before the Convention Even Starts:

  • Arrange for convention staff to be trained on how to handle reports of harassment. If only certain individuals are trained to respond to these reports, make sure all volunteers know who those people are and how to contact them.
  • Establish a clear chain of communication up to the person in charge of safety concerns (usually the safety chair or convention chair).
  • If possible, plan to have at least two people on call at all times who are able to handle reports. This allows one person to focus on helping the person who was harassed while the other addresses the needs of the convention as an entity and the other attendees.

At the Convention:

  • Make sure staff and volunteers are easy to recognize (most cons have badge ribbons, staff T-shirts, and/or other identifiers), and that they know what to do if someone reports harassment.
  • Respect the reporting individual’s needs and wishes.
  • If there’s a risk to anyone’s physical safety, consider contacting hotel security or police.
  • Find a relatively safe and private place to talk to the reporting individual.
  • Document as much as possible, including the time of the event, names and badge numbers, location, etc.
  • Share the information with the convention’s powers-that-be.
  • Investigate quickly, and follow up with the harasser.
  • Enforce any appropriate consequences.

After the Convention:

  • Solicit feedback. Ask attendees and volunteers what worked, and what problems they encountered.
  • Follow up on any unresolved reports.

Some of this seems obvious, such as finding a safe place to talk. But there have been had instances where someone was assault at a convention, and the con staff basically interrogated her in the middle of the lobby. Don’t do that.

If there’s a problem with a particular individual, the con staff need to be aware of this. If additional reports come in while an incident is being investigated, the fact that this isn’t a first report can affect how staff respond.

Finally, if you have a policy, follow it. Many of you are probably familiar with the incident at Readercon where they received multiple, verified reports of an individual harassing others, but responded in a way that ignored the consequences set out in their own policy. This damaged the trust of attendees and resulted in the entire Readercon board resigning. (Readercon has since done a great deal of work to try to repair the damage done by this decision.)

5. Where can I find examples of convention harassment policies?

There are many more conventions with good harassment policies out there, and more groups are creating and publishing such policies each year. But these should be enough to get you started thinking about how to write or update your own.

6. Do harassment policies really work?


It’s true that publishing a policy doesn’t guarantee your event will be harassment-free. Just like laws against theft and vandalism didn’t stop someone from smashing the window to my wife’s van a few years back and stealing everything they could grab. However, the existence of those laws sends a clear message about what will and will not be tolerated in the community, and establishes consequences for anyone choosing to violate those rules.

Creating and publishing a harassment policy for your convention will help reduce the behavior, let your members know you take harassment seriously, and help you to respond more effectively when it does happen.