Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 2013

Here's What to Include in Your Meeting's Harassment Policy

By Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor

member of conference staff. Conference staff will be wearing ‘PyCon Staff’ t-shirts. You may also contact hotel staff and ask to be put in touch with the conference chair.”

Writing a comprehensive policy is only the first step; getting the word out is the next important task. “You need to have a link on your website, include it in pre-event emails, and put it in your conference program,” Aurora said. “Some conferences require attendees to agree to the policy when they register.” At Dragon Con 2013, one of the largest fan conventions in the United States, held every year in Atlanta, a video explaining a new harassment policy was broadcast on large screens before the opening session and any large panels.

“If nobody knows about it, you haven't done your job,” said Jim Louis, CMP, president of Best Meetings, who recently helped a technology convention adopt a harassment policy. The industry is male-dominated, but the percentage of women attending the conference has increased steadily in recent years. Although the group hasn't had any major issues, it decided to be proactive and introduced an anti-harassment policy this year. Organizers included a copy of the policy on the registration website and in the on-site program, and inserted a double-sided sheet about the policy into each attendee bag.

“One side was the policy and the other side was what to do if you experience or witness harassment,” Louis said. “We had a first-timers orientation session where we discussed it, and we also had a brief announcement at the opening keynote session.” Rather than giving the impression the conference had a harassment problem, it created a positive, congenial environment, Louis said, where people felt encouraged to look out for one another.

The Business Case for Decency 

The argument for adopting a formal harassment policy is always centered around basic decency, experts said, but there are also important business reasons for having one in place. For example, in today's interconnected, 140-character world, there's little chance of keeping a negative incident quiet; if something does occur, people are going to hear about it.

At the 2012 SXSW session where a speaker used offensive language, upset attendees were tweeting their disgust as they walked out mid-session. One tweet read: “Biz dev VP of @path just cracked lame jokes re: ‘nudie calendars,’ frat guys + ‘hottest girls,’ ‘gangbang’ at #sxws talk. Cue early exit.” When the PyCon incident occurred earlier this year, the woman who made the complaint about sexist and inappropriate jokes first tweeted the incident, along with a picture of the men making the comments: “Not cool. Jokes about ‘forking’ repo's in a sexual way and ‘big’ dongles. Right behind me #pycon pic.twitter.com/Hv1bkeOsYP;.”

The tweet quickly went viral, and PyCon became the centerpiece of a conversation on sexism at tech conferences. The woman was vilified for publicly sharing the men's photo and became the recipient of threats and ugly comments. One of the two men making the jokes lost his job, as did the woman who made the complaint. “We were kind of annoyed by the coverage of the event,” Kaplan-Moss said. “It was the first time we got mentioned in The New Yorker, but it wasn't the way we would have wanted. The irony is the majority of feedback we got was we handled it right.”

“Whoever you are, whatever convention you're running, if someone goes to it and feels like they've been harassed, there's a very good chance that it's going on the Internet,” Scalzi said. “It’ s going to blow up, and you're going to have to deal with it. The question is, how do you want to deal with it? Do you want to deal with it ahead of time, so everyone who comes in is clear on what the rules of the road are? Or do you want to have to deal with it afterward, when you're basically playing defense or trying to deny it happened?”

For Naomi R. Angel, an attorney who specializes in association law at Howe & Hutton in Chicago, it's about perception. “Reputation-wise, reports of harassment or inappropriate behavior can be very bad,” Angel said. “It's some of the worst damage that can be done to a group's reputation. Having a policy helps to strengthen your reputation of concern and awareness.”

Louis added: “Once it gets out there, it can very much hurt an event, so think of this as just another part of your risk-management plan. It's just another aspect of your what-if planning: what if the power goes out, what if a speaker trips and falls on the way to stage. You need to have your backup plans in place, and this is no different.”

Another incentive for adopting a policy is that it can provide some protection should a victim of alleged harassment bring legal action against the host organization. “Your liability depends on whether or not you have encouraged or prevented the harassment that took place at your event,” Worsinger said. “The point is, you want to protect yourself, and to protect yourself you have to let people know you have a zero-tolerance policy.”

Not that you're policing every form of human interaction. “An attendee hitting on another is not the responsibility of the group. As a planner, we can't prevent that,” Angel said. “What we can do is make it clear that the group does not support offending behavior and will take appropriate action and act promptly to eliminate offending conduct and impose corrective action, whatever that maybe.” This is particularly important for organizations that host events in industries where there have been past complaints or accusations of inappropriate behavior. If an organizer doesn't have a policy and harassment takes place at the event, the host's liability is going to be greater, Katz said. “The event organizer is already on notice that this kind of improper behavior is already taking place,” she said. “If this was a convention where this kind of behavior never took place, the organizer could say, ‘How would we know?’ But if you're dealing with a group where [incidents] are well known and on record, the organizer's liability is much greater.”

Finally, sending a message of tolerance and inclusion is a smart move for any conference or meeting in any industry or field, Scalzi said. “The smartest thing for people who are running conventions is to recognize that in both the short and long run, it's going to be better for your convention if everybody knows they're going to be treated with respect,” he said. “If you don't do that, the younger people, the people who are vital to your field, are no longer going to feel like your convention or conference is a welcome place, and they will create spaces that are more welcome to them. You don't want to be the ones who are left behind.”

In other words, this is one of those cases where the right thing to do is the smart thing to do is the best thing to do. “A code of conduct is a good tool to promote the fact that your conference is very focused on exchange of ideas and actual work,” Frick said. “It tells attendees that you will not tolerate anything that impedes or stilts or limits creative conversation, and people can feel comfortable at your event. In the long run, [a harassment policy] will likely attract — rather than scare away — more people to your conference.”

Making Things Clear

What to include in a harassment policy, according to sample policy published by the Ada Initiative:

  • Statement that the convention is dedicated to a harassment-free experience for everyone.
  • Statement that the convention organizers do not tolerate harassment of conference participants in any form.
  • Definition of harassment, which includes inappropriate and unwelcome comments, touching, attention, photography, stalking, and intimidating behavior.
  • Clear guidance on what victims can do in the event of harassment and how victims can file a complaint.
  • Statement that conference participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference.

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