People make mistakes - things happen. The goal of punishing users is to prevent them from doing it again, so they can learn from it. But, if a user breaks a rule and has demonstrated that it was an accident and they already learned from their mistake, is it still necessary to punish them anyways?
Punishment is NOT always necessary, and often undermines what you're trying to do.
Ask yourself this: In your entire life, how often has your personal response to punishment (not feedback, not natural consequences, but punishment, like a time-out, getting grounded, etc.) made you think, "Those are reasonable rules, and I really should have respected them!"
The problem with punishing someone is this: The act of punishing almost always makes the individual feel like the punisher (and their rules) are less reasonable than they did before. Put another way,
Punishment actually makes the recipient less likely to accept and embrace your rules. Relative to most other actions, it mostly just increases their odds of hating you.
As such, you should usually try to restrict it to one of the following cases:
- You've already tried constructive feedback and other methods of communication to no end, and you're convinced that nothing else can work, so there's little harm in alienating them further.
- Their actions are so clearly egregious that you actively want them gone forever, and have no interest in teaching them anything anyway (this should be pretty rare)
- Their actions are urgently harmful to the community, and a "time out" or other punishment is the only way to slow the bleeding and buy time to deal with it more subtly.
- Even though you might have better odds of teaching them with softer methods, you have to take action to demonstrate to the community or others that this behavior won't be tolerated, because it's spread would be so dangerous. (Bigoted language that's more ignorant than hate-driven might fall in this bucket.)
In short, we always think punishment will increase the odds of someone "learning." And we've got it backwards, so punishment should mostly be restricted to the cases above.
It's not punishment, it's discipline. The goal is to make the user learn. With that in mind, let's look at your question:
But, if a user breaks a rule and has demonstrated that it was an accident and they already learned from their mistake
If they've already learned from their mistake, and you believe they have, then by definition you don't need to do anything. Mission accomplished.
The one big question I ask before suspending a user is "Will they stop the problematic behaviour if I simply ask them to?". If I think that a user is reasonable and will stop the behaviour once I ask them, I generally don't see any need for further action. A harsh reaction might antagonize the user without any necessity and lead to problems later on.
Punishment is also not the right word in my opinion here. A suspension or ban might be perceived as punishment by the affected user, but the intent behind these action should be simply to stop problematic behaviour.
There are certain actions where I consider a suspension or ban to be absolutely necessary. Direct and severe insults towards other community members are on example. In such cases they also serve as as a signal that such behaviour is not tolerated. Not taking action in such cases can lead to a higher amount of bad behaviour if users have the impression that no significant action is taken in such cases.
I run a discord site and we have a strong, and enforced code of conduct. We never punish anyone.
We do ban people, instantly, after doing just one thing. Nobody would describe that thing as a mistake, though it's possible someone could try saying it was just a joke. Doesn't matter. Do one of the very small set of insta-ban things, you're banned.
We also DM users and say "change your display name" (or avatar or whatever) or "what you are doing in #channel is inappropriate" and if they persist, we kick them with a message that they can rejoin any time. The tone is "we don't do that here".
And we do some things in public: this conversation belongs in that other channel, this argument is more heat than light and should pause for a while, please don't use that language (not referring her to racial slurs or severe swearing, but more to "humourous" comments about killing yourself if you have to use a particular tool or product, that sort of thing.) If a person argues back to a mod comment and tries to start a debate about our rules on the spot, or just digs their heels in and keeps going, then they will be kicked (can rejoin any time) or banned, depending on the mod's belief that they will keep misbehaving in the future.
We also delete things that don't belong where they were posted.
None of this is punishment. It's janitor work. It's keeping things clean. You may feel hurt if your post is deleted, but we didn't delete it to hurt you. We deleted it, in the knowledge it might hurt you, to protect those who would have seen it and to reassure those who did see it. We don't do that here.
In all of this we prioritize our most vulnerable users. They should not have to read academic discussions about whether they should exist (or be employed in certain jobs, or be allowed to parent, or should vote) or not. They should not have to read jokes that make light of real pain in their life. They should not be left thinking that we will tolerate or "walk past" that kind of material. Our moderating is about those users, far more than the one person who "slipped" or "made a mistake" or "misjudged a joke." That user may end up no longer on the server, or may feel bad for a few moments. But that is a side effect, not the goal. We don't punish. But we don't let bad stuff stay, and if it's clear someone will be a source of bad stuff, we don't let the someone stay.
Probably not. This will just make them mad and have them possibly leave the site. However, it might be okay to do a slight punishment if that's standard or if it was terrible.
You might just want to formally give them a warning and keep a close eye on them. If they act up again, you could add the punishment for a first and second offense together (if there's formal guidelines for how long to suspend a user, etc.).
It is really something you have to play by ear. The primary goal of discipline is to prevent bad behavior and if the user has really learned, then it often is fine to avoid a penalty for their bad action as long as it isn't a regular occurrence.
That said, there are exceptions to this. Policies also need to be enforced fairly and evenly. If there is a situation where two individuals both ended up breaking the rules in a conflict and one seems to have reformed and admitted fault, but the other still hasn't, it is probably still best to penalize both individuals. It may not be necessary for the one, but if you only penalize the one who needs it, it is going to end up being really unfair.
When deciding if a penalty is needed I look at three main things, first, is it fair to punish or to not penalize the user, second, is there a pattern of behavior here that suggests the user hasn't learned despite claims that they have and third, do they appear to have learned from there actions and/or was it simply a mistake. The balance of those three things results in a determination of how to proceed and it is highly situational how they balance out.
By considering the following points, let us view "punishment" differently:
- Instead of saying "the goal of punishing users is to prevent them from doing it (a mistake) again", it is better to say that the goal of punishment is to prevent an (unacceptable) action from being done again. Unfortunately, in most cases, doers, not their actions, are admired, criticized, or judged.
This our new definition of "punishment" has the following advantages:
First, instead of trying to prevent a one from committing some unacceptable action, we can extend our view and try to prevent the action from being taken by the whole community. Controlling a particular action is easier than controlling individuals.
Second, in order to keep some unacceptable behavior from your community, you need to apply required punishments against it constantly; however, it is not possible and recommended to punish community members all the time, but it is possible to treat in a way that such an unacceptable behavior is discouraged constantly within the community.
Third, punishment is now viewed like a medical approach whose goal is to fight against causes of diseases by removing them and vaccinating people against them; although the ills may dislike taking medication, they are willing to be cured as soon as possible and not to get sick again.
- Regarding our new definition of "punishment", we should find appropriate solutions to discourage unacceptable actions in a community. Suppose that you want to stop a moving object. What is the best way to do that? The answer is easy: We need to exert some required force in a direction opposite to the direction of the object movement. So, the best way to discourage a behavior is to encourage its opposite. For example, if community members see that high-quality contribution is highly encouraged, low-quality posts are hardly found in the community.
- In some special cases, which should be very rare, to discourage an unacceptable behavior, one may need to deprive its doer from some privileges temporarily, which is called a disciplinary action. For example, a person whose only intention is posting offensive contents may deserve some disciplinary action because the solution mentioned in the previous point may not work well in such a situation and one need to stop such a behavior for the sake of the community. I personally have never seen such special cases.
However, before taking any disciplinary action, it is highly recommended that a set of clear written guidelines of acceptable behavior already exists in the community.