Defining a company policy to handle harassment in open source

We're sharing our guidance on Open Source harassment

photo of Per Ploug
Per Ploug

Open Source Community Manager

Posted on Feb 04, 2019

Open Source Participation

When you as a Zalando employee engage in open source communities as part of your work, you will interact with the wider open source communities outside Zalando - this is generally a good experience and collaborating with many different types of developers with different backgrounds is generally a positive input to your personal development.

However, there is also a small risk of encountering negative or even abusive behavior from community members when you act as an open source contributor or maintainer.

As an employer encouraging open source participation, we have decided to devise a policy for how we as a company can support our employees in case of harassment.

Statistics on harassment in open source

An extensive survey by Github in 2017 showed that nearly one out of five have experienced negative behavior personally and 50% have witnessed it between other people - fortunately outright harassment is much less likely with 14% witnessing it and 3% experiencing it personally.

Witnessing and experiencing behavior such as name-calling, stereotyping and outright harassment can have a big negative impact on peoples desire to be part of open source communities, especially for women or ethnic or sexual minorities who are already underrepresented in the open source world (3% female, 16% ethnic minority, 7% sexual minority).

So, the open source community see an underrepresentation of minorities and those who do participate have a risk of encountering hostile behavior. Is the risk of harassment big? No - generally speaking the risk is low, but the impact of potential harassment is very real.

As an industry we must prioritize the topic of diversity in open source, abusive behavior should not be tolerated, and in the case of it happening, companies should be ready to support their employees in dealing with it.

Supporting employee participation

As an employer, Zalando encourages its employees to take active part in open source development. Developers are granted time to maintain the projects we release and to contribute upstream to projects which are of strategic importance to Zalando. We as a company therefore have an obligation to ensure that we support employees who engage in open source on Zalandos behalf.

Support isn't just about granting time and resources for open source development, support is also understanding the potential risk employees face doing open source and to be ready to offer legal and HR guidance and understanding to employees in the event of harassment.

It is with this mindset that we have put together a formal policy for dealing with harassment in open source for our maintainers and contributors, a policy which employees can use to determine where inside Zalando they can find help to deal with such behavior and also to clarify what they can expect from Legal and HR.

The policy

We have divided the policy into 2 parts: proactive and reactive measures.

First of all: proactively we recommend that employees only engage with projects who have a code of conduct in place, we also enforce that all new projects released by Zalando have a code of conduct in place as part of the boilerplate files we provide. As part of our internal mandatory training for open source maintainers and during on-boarding of new employees we also make our expectations very clear: in case of behavior in breach of the code of conduct, it is expected you enforce the code or ask the open source team for help on how to act.

Secondly, if an employee do need guidance we reactively provide the following options:

  • P&O (Zalando HR) can guide you on how to react to abusive behavior and help you determine if legal action is required. Talk to your lead if you need assistance, or reach out directly to the open source team.
  • The open source team will assist you in reporting the abuse to the responsible platform owner (such as Github)
  • Zalando legal will provide legal guidance in case such is required
  • If it is established there is a need to report the incident to law enforcement, P&O (Zalando HR) and Zalando legal will assist you in collecting evidence and file a report

A small step forward

While policies will never solve the root cause, it is a step in the right direction. We believe in equal opportunity and access to the world of open source. We believe open source is important, not just to tech companies, but to society as a whole and we must all do what we can to ensure that the communities building the software that we all rely on is inclusive and safe for everyone to be part of.