Develop Effective Forum Leadership

Patrick O'Keefe

Once a community has reached a certain level of activity, your community staff — your moderators — play a vital role in the continued success of the operation.

As the administrator, you can manage a community with a one-person staff (you) for a period of time, but as your site grows, you must think about creating and leading a team of individuals who can help you to deal with the increased activity, and maintain the goals that you’ve set for your community by enforcing your user guidelines.

Generally, the best way to build your staff is to pull people from your active member base. You should seek out the members who set the best example for others to follow, in line with your guidelines — not the members who simply post a lot. You want your moderators to be visible within your forums, but you also want them to have the right attitude and the ability to work in a team environment. These people’s characters, their personalities, and their attitudes are the most important considerations, above all else.

Once you find these individuals, you need to train them so that they can understand what their responsibilities are, and what they need to do to accomplish them. But training need not be intensive or time consuming. Using a few different methods, you can give your staff members a head start on their duties and help them to confidently and cogently contribute as soon as possible.

Create Staff Guidelines

It’s very important that you clearly communicate what’s expected of your staff members. This allows everyone to be clear (or, at least, clearer) about their responsibilities from the start, and it also gives you something to reference should any issues arise in the future. Without some sort of staff guidelines or a manual, it’s hard for your staff members to act in a particular way, because you haven’t clearly documented what you want.

Your staff guidelines can include any expectations that pertain to their being staff members in your community. Here are some questions that you can ask yourself as you create the guidelines:

  • What are their specific duties?
  • How should they act and conduct themselves?
  • How should they use their moderator "powers"?
  • How should they handle violations of your user guidelines?
  • How should they interact in your staff forums and with other levels of staff?

These are just several examples, but they should allow you to grasp the concept of staff guidelines. Your guidelines should tell your moderators exactly what you expect of them. Don’t leave things to chance because you think they go without saying — include the most basic details, even specifying, for example, that moderators treat all members respectfully, and that what’s said in staff forums is to be discussed between current staff members only — no one else.

Also detail what you want staff members to do beyond simple moderation responsibilities. Do you want them to welcome members? Do they need to contribute an article to your articles section once a year? Where can they find their moderator tools? Be very clear in your requirements, and provide links to the guidelines, forums, and other sections of the site that you reference.

Don’t be afraid to change your guidelines if the need arises. This is a living document, so it’ll need adjustment over time. When you make a noteworthy change, be sure to announce it to your staff so that they can become familiar with it.

Develop a Situations Guide

Wanting to keep the two separate, I created a supplement to my Staff Guidelines that I call our Situations Guide. This guide details specific situations that arise on the forums, and explains how they should be handled. Where the Staff Guidelines detail staff member responsibilities, and how they can be fulfilled, the Situations Guide deals almost exclusively with unique situations that staff members will encounter when dealing with members.

Here are some examples of things that I cover in Situations Guide:

  • What’s the difference between an accident, and duplicate or cross posting?
  • What should staff members do if a banned member contacts them?
  • What constitutes hotlinking?
  • What’s an inflammatory comment?
  • What does it mean when a member references an administrative decision?
  • When are video and/or audio files appropriate, and when are they deemed to violate copyright or another standard?

This guide helps to familiarize staff members with what they will see "in the field" and how they should handle it. This is of great benefit as there are often subtle nuances in the ways you want certain situations to be managed, and without these additional guidelines, those nuances would not otherwise be clear.

Document All Violations

In another article I wrote for SitePoint, called Manage Guideline Violations on Your Community, I discussed the system I use in my community to document violations of our user guidelines and related activities. I like this system because it’s easy, most any forum software is capable of it right out of the box, it’s searchable, and it makes it easy for you to monitor activity.

The system centers around the creation of two private, staff member-only forums. I call these Problem Users and Trash Bin (though you may use variations on these names).

The Trash Bin stores every post that violates your guidelines. Every single one. In my communities, staff members don’t edit posts to remove violations, as that approach creates sloppy documentation, makes mistake correction harder, and is more likely to cause members to look at moderators as proofreaders — among other things. When someone violates our guidelines, no matter what has occurred, the post is removed from the thread and placed in the Trash Bin, untouched and unedited.

This is where Problem Users comes in. In this forum, every member who has ever caused any sort of disturbance or noteworthy distraction is documented in a thread titled with the user’s precise username. In it, all of the user’s violations are documented. Typical documentation includes a link to the post or posts in question (now in the Trash Bin), what was wrong with each post, what action was taken ("PM sent" for private message sent, and "Banned" are the two most common actions). Finally, there’s a quote explaining exactly what the violation was, so that anyone can easily tell what the staff member who took the action was looking at.

We document more than specific post violations here, though — we document other types of violations (such as signature or private message violations) and any noteworthy contact between the member and a staff member. So, for example, if one of my staff members contacts a member about a violation and he or she receives a reply from that member that’s in any way questionable or disrespectful, I ask the staff member to paste the private message, in its entirety, in the Problem Users thread for that member. I also want the staff member to post his or her reply. If the user was very rude, I ask my staff members to avoid replying, and to allow me to handle it instead.

I do this with my own conversations, as well. I document any conversation that I think may be in any way noteworthy going forward, including the exact details of what the user sent me, and what I sent them. This goes a long way in establishing a sense of trust and understanding between me, as the leader, and my staff members. They know what I’m doing and how I’m speaking with all members, and there’s rarely any surprise when I take a particular action, because my staff members know exactly what’s going on at all times.

The Problem Users forum also shows staff members how I want them to speak to members, for the most part. That said, they do understand that sometimes a stronger tone is needed — and that I’m the only one that should take that tone, as I want my staff members to stay out of those sorts of issues.

These forums help you in so many ways. But, when it comes to training, they offer one huge benefit: they show new staff members exactly how business is conducted. The staff members can see that a post was removed, they can look at the post, and they can understand why you acted and what you did. You’re passing on invaluable experience, which shows them exactly what they’ll be doing and how to do it.

Establish the Staff Environment

For your staff, you want to create a private environment that’s calm, respectful, encouraging, and even fun. You want to have at least one staff forum where staff members (along with the administrator) can discuss issues that are relevant to the management of the site.

I’m friends with all of my staff members. We get along very well, which I think is key to my forums’ success. I could never have someone on my staff that I didn’t like or respect, because that would affect the culture and create tension. I treat my staff members with respect and I expect it in return.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t correct them when it’s needed. I do. Things happen, most of which are not that big a deal, but even the smallest slips must be corrected. You should strive for excellence and accept little else. That said, when I correct my staff members, I try to keep my comments light and forward looking. If I see that a post has been removed that shouldn’t have been, I’ll add it back into the thread publicly, and then I’ll make a post in the staff forums, to let everyone know why the post was moved back, and what they can look out for in the future, usually stressing that it’s no big deal.

The reason why I post in the staff forums, rather than contacting the moderator directly, is because these are already issues that other staff members know about. They’ll see that I’ve corrected the situation and moved the post, so keeping the details of my decision from them doesn’t really help anyone. Also, telling everyone about it allows all my staff members to be on the same page, and to learn from the exercise. If there’s an issue that’s private, and which other staff members don’t know about, I’ll usually handle it on a private, one-on-one basis.

In contacting a member whose post was removed in error, I never hang anyone out to dry. I never comment, "Paul removed this post in error," or "Jenny made a mistake." When mistakes are made, it’s either "we" or "me" (as the administrator), not "they" or "you." We make mistakes as a team, and we experience success as a team.

I never allow any duty to appear to be below me. When I see a violation, I handle it myself. I never tell a member of my staff to do it. If they asked me about it, I try to let them handle it, but otherwise, I’ll handle any problem as soon as I see it. As the administrator, I’m also a moderator, and I try hard to set the best example for my staff members to follow.

My staff members work well together and, as far as I can tell, like and respect one another. You can create this sort of culture by choosing people of good character to be on staff. I want good human beings, not know-it-alls. Attitude is everything. That point is crucial. I can’t stress it enough: pick good people.

Another thing I do is to prevent staff members on the same level from critiquing each other. In other words, I don’t want a moderator correcting a fellow moderator. If a moderator has an issue with something that one of their fellow staff members has done, I ask them to come to me privately, so that I can sort it out.

You should always encourage your staff members to ask questions and seek clarification on any issues they see. Have an open-door policy, and be as kind and inviting as you can. You’re approachability should especially be stressed to new staff members. Even with all the staff guidelines and documentation in the world, there will still be questions. Welcome them and answer them to the best of your ability.

Encourage your new staff members to take their time to observe and learn, and avoid making them feel like they need to rush into doing something. Moderator responsibilities can be a daunting task at times, so be sure to allow them some time to get comfortable.

Top Tips for Training Forum Moderators

These methods should put you at a great advantage when it comes time to promote new people to your community moderation team.

Be clear with them, and tell them what you expect. Honesty is critical, so don’t beat around the bush. Write Staff Guidelines that detail what your staff members are expected to do, and how you’d like them to act. Create a Situations Guide that teaches them how to deal with specific common scenarios. Create within your team an environment in which team members respect one another, and feel comfortable to ask questions and get help.

I’ve used this system in my own communities, and I’ve had success with it. Pick good people, give them what they need to succeed, and monitor them, assisting as appropriate.

As I said earlier, staff members play a vital role in the success of a community. You can’t do it all, and you shouldn’t. You need a good team so that you can step back, take the lead, and focus on other aspects of the community. You can’t be there all the time. I always say that you know that you have a good staff when you can go away for a while and not worry about your community — well, not too much, anyway!

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