When Moderators Fumble

3 minute read

November 12, 2015

When Moderators Fumble

This type of moderation fumble can take many different forms, from the minor to the severe. Minor mistakes that are unlikely to cause big waves might include:

  • Closing a discussion without providing feedback on why it was a problem
  • Accidentally banning a user or deleting content (in a way that can be reversed)
  • Mistakenly warning a user under a false assumption
  • Breaking minor rules that a user would be punished for
  • Handling a minor moderation function poorly

…or similar simple mistakes. More serious fumbles that I’ve seen have been more along the lines of

  • Bullying a user
  • Handling a crisis badly
  • Breaking serious rules that a user would be banned for
  • Abusing moderator privileges over grudges and drama

Notably, the more minor problems tend to be simple mistakes, and the more serious are errors in judgment.

The two primary issues here are:

  • What should you do with the moderator?
  • What should you say to the community?

How Should You Deal With the Moderator?

The answer is of course different if the problem is serious or minor. For minor fumbles, it’s generally best to let the moderator know what they did wrong calmly and how they can do better in the future. As with any management issue, you don’t get anywhere by yelling. Most moderators are volunteers, and few will consider it worth their time to be upbraided by someone that they are essentially doing a favour. It’s worth apologising on their behalf if a user has been impacted by this mistake. It saves the moderator a little embarrassment and smooths things over with your community.

For more serious errors in judgement such as bullying or other abuses of power, the moderator’s status is likely to be in question. Moderation requires excellent judgment, but no one is perfect and mistakes happen. A key thing to ask yourself is “will this happen again?”. Does the moderator in question understand that they made a mistake, or are they defiant? Did they already take it upon themselves to apologise? Even serious errors in judgment can be forgiven if they’re part of a learning process that makes the community a better place.

If you believe that this problem is indicative of future behaviour or is part of an existing pattern of poor judgment, my advice is to remove their moderator privileges. Almost no one can do as much damage to a community as a bad moderator, and it’s the responsibility of the community manager to protect the community from this eventuality. I very rarely remove a moderator from their position, but I’ve learned to my cost that leaving a bad candidate in that position for too long doesn’t make the final removal any easier.

The next problem facing you is how to communicate with your community over the issue. If it’s a minor problem, you only need to give an account to the people affected. If it’s a larger issue that’s caused reverberations around the community, you’ll need to make a more public address.

Addressing The Community

It’s a cliche, but the trick really is to be open and as honest with your community as possible. They want to know:

  • What happened? Giving a clear account prevents the game of Broken Telephone from getting too wild and becoming legend.
  • What has been done to make amends?
  • Has anything been done to prevent this happening in the future?

That last one is important. Whatever the problem was, how can you prevent it from repeating? Take a look at your moderator guidelines and see if the mistake could reasonably have been avoided by the moderator reading them, or if a note about the situation should be added. Also consider how moderators are being onboarded. Are you training them properly and giving them the information and guidance needed to make good decisions? If not, improving the information they have available is a great way to keep these problems few and far between.

While preventive measures are always a good idea, I’d caution against responding to problems by vastly curtailing the abilities of your moderation staff. In general your community will be better served by having trustworthy moderators who are empowered to do the job well. Don’t let the possibility for a bad moderator prevent you from giving good ones the tools they need.

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Patrick Groome

Written by Patrick Groome

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