The Dark Side of Meetings

By Christine Born, April 28, 2015

A group of senior meeting professionals meets at an “Industry After Dark: The Stuff No One Talks About” session at SPINCon 2014. The women are from different generations and come from myriad backgrounds, but have one thing in common: Each has stories about experiencing harassment, either in industry jobs or at conventions, or both.

One supplier was urged by her colleagues to throw her room keys on the table along with theirs during a convention-networking event. When she saw her direct supervisor leaving someone else’s room the next morning, she knew it was time to find a new job. Another woman received an invitation to a post-event client dinner. When the client’s club turned out to be a strip club, she and another female guest called a cab and promptly left. Management’s lack of support, especially in a case involving an important client, left her little choice but to resign. “The stories are disturbing and infuriating,” says Tracey Smith, CMP, CMM, contract meeting manager, Tracey Smith Events | Marketing. “We are mostly women and very vulnerable in the industry.”

Harassment can hurt attendance. Women rarely report harassment, especially job-related incidents. Instead, they often limit their participation at meetings, especially events where they have been subjected to unwanted behavior.

The stories are not limited to age or gender, and are not always about sexual harassment. Bullying and other inappropriate behavior after hours, oftentimes fueled by alcohol, are rampant throughout the industry. Though rarely discussed in the light of day, such behavior leads to toxic environments at some conventions, posing serious questions for planners. How liable are meeting professionals and the organizations they represent for sexual harassment and other threatening behavior during events? Can they be held responsible for perpetuating a hostile environment?

“You can make all the policies you want, but if someone is going to act badly, you’re not going to stop it,” says Wayne Wallgren, owner and president of WorldWide Incentives, Inc. “There are usually enough responsible people around that if someone they are working with is getting out of line, they will help move the person out.”

Michele Klopper, CMP, who manages her own business, MK Meetings & Events, tends to agree. “We can’t really control things like overdrinking, especially when you see it at higher levels,” she says, adding that she has had to drive VPs home. “It never ceases to amaze me that people think they can get away with what they could not do at work. They seem to lose sensibility.”

Setting the Tone

Klopper’s attitude comes from experience. At her first job out of college, she was encouraged to mingle with executives at a meeting only to be asked up to one of the men’s rooms. She refused, and left the company after feeling that it condoned that type of behavior. “Folks at the top set the tone,” says Wallgren. “But I haven’t seen any of them doing it.”

“The stories are disturbing and infuriating. We are mostly women and very vulnerable in the industry.” —Tracey Smith, contract meeting manager, Tracey Smith Events | Marketing

Smith recalls being harassed when she was younger, although she didn’t recognize the behavior as such until reading an empowering article on the subject. In part, that’s because harassment can take many forms, whether it’s sexual, hateful or involves other forms of bullying.

Conference organizers need to be on the watch for these actions, says Barbara Dunn, a hospitality lawyer and partner at Barnes & Thornburg, headquartered in Chicago. Educating on-site staff on what is appropriate behavior, whom to report to and how to handle reports is an essential part of event risk management.

“You train for a fire drill, why not this issue?” says Dunn. “You need to empower your staff. Let them know even if they have a concern, but aren’t quite sure how seriously to take it, they should call you. You want to know.”

Not only must employers stress the importance of coming forward, they also need to have a responsible person to whom employees can report. The company needs to make it clear that it does not want an environment of harassment and won’t retaliate for an honest report.

“A hostile work environment is not a women’s issue,” adds Dunn. “An employer shouldn’t challenge whether it is hostile or not. It opens up the employer’s liability.”

Cultural Differences

As meetings have become more diverse, there is a requirement to be more sensitive to each group’s norms and customs. Dunn recalls an employee quitting her job after receiving a hug during a training board meeting and then suing the company. That example may shock some in an industry in which hugging is commonplace, but customs of proper behavior and even strict taboos are very real in today’s global business world.

Never is it more of an issue than when a meeting goes overseas to a country with different views on civil liberties than the United States.

“How do you address sexual orientation and gender quality in Dubai?” asks Trevor Lui, director of operations and sustainability at The International Centre in Mississauga, Ontario. “Does that become an element in destination decisions? Do you consider a destination’s policy on civil rights? We have a stronger measure of influence than we think we have, so we should be talking about these questions.”

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that more awareness and open discussion could help prevent problems before they occur. “Talk to the meeting host about how they want to handle people who get over served or have medical issues,” says Smith. “There are psychotics among us. There might be a depressed person who is having an episode. Part of your job is to anticipate what can go wrong. If you don’t think about it [ahead of time], you’re not prepared.”

Beware of Dangers

Meeting staff and attendees put in long hours at conventions. They may have a drink, or several drinks, while socializing. They often go back to hotel rooms alone. It’s a formula for a potentially dangerous situation.

“It never ceases to amaze me that people think they can get away with what they could not do at work. They seem to lose sensibility.” —Michele Klopper, MK Meetings & Events

At one of Smith’s events, an audiovisual crew found an intoxicated female attendee riding up and down an elevator. The crew took the woman to her room safely. Not only was she vulnerable to an attack before being discovered, the case could have become a legal matter. “She had been way over served,” says Smith. “She could have claimed rape.”

Wallgren remembers an instance when a supplier was hitting on virtually anyone who was female. He was drunk, and the room was full of experienced industry professionals. “It was not a big deal for them,” says Wallgren. “Everyone was able to handle it. But, as a supplier there to do business, is he the guy I want to represent me?”

Yet, the industry as a whole rarely talks about these issues, despite obligations to employers, staff, sponsors and attendees. When was the last time a speaker opened a discussion about harassment? Or read show literature addressing behavior at the event? Or learned about gun control policies at convention centers?

Shawna Suckow, CMP, founder and head of both the Senior Planners Industry Network and its sister community for suppliers, The Hive Network, strongly believes that these controversial issues demand discussion, not only after hours, but also as part of regular programming.

“I remember back in the ’90s when I was a corporate planner, the CEO and all the VPs disappeared before the night of the big speech. I couldn’t get the information I needed for the talk because he and his boys’ club would go to his suite and get higher than a kite,” she says. “I would like to believe these things don’t happen as much as they did in the ’90s, but there are still strip clubs, and men disappear all the time in Vegas.”

What may change offensive and sometimes dangerous behavior is technology, which allows every action to be captured. “Everyone has a camera on them,” Wallgren points out, and photos or video clips can go viral, embarrassing organizations, turning away sponsors and clients, and causing attendance to drop at events.

Bullying on the Rise

At a time when Klopper feels sexual harassment has almost become a buzz phrase, Lorie Tuma, visiting assistant professor at Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, Michigan, specializes in preparing hospitality and tourism management students to find a job in a company with a culture that fits their values and learning how to navigate business environments. She’s found women have more to fear from their own gender than men.

“You train for a fire drill, why not this issue? You need to empower your staff.” —Barbara Dunn, Barnes & Thornburg

“I hear more stories about women sometimes even enjoying the challenges for younger women, even hoping they fail,” says Tuma. “‘The Devil Wears Prada’ syndrome turns young people away from the industry.”

“It is there—look at social media and you’ll find them venting their feelings. With social media, it’s almost professional bullying on speed. It is happening, maybe not in all organizations, but some,” she adds.

She says the reverse situation can be true, with younger people bullying older people to leave the industry. She offers an example of an organization with several younger staff members and one older person who specializes in customer service, but might not be technologically savvy. While Klopper says she experienced bullying during one of her first jobs, she did not see it as such. She suggests that as a society we’ve become too soft.

“I’ve had plenty of good experiences with women. There are just some women, like men, who are nasty. Everything is so PC now. We are so quick to pull the trigger on going to a higher authority. We need to encourage people to have their wits about them.”

Teaching young people, especially women, about finding organizations that match their beliefs and mindset, and helping them understand the very nature of the meetings industry, are solutions Tuma is invested in. “How do we prepare and protect people?” she says.

Agents of Change

Some progress is already noticeable, says Suckow. “No one gets soused at lunch and gets a signed contract anymore,” she says. “That’s gone the way of the liquid lunch.” Hope for further change can be summed up in one word: Millennials.

“They’re the generation that’s raised on equality more than any other, and they are not prepared to expect this behavior at all,” says Suckow. “They may be put into the situation, but they are the generation that will stop it. They will speak up.”

Perhaps more importantly, “they are the changing face of meetings,” says Lui.

Knowing they have a voice and that certain behavior is not only no longer acceptable or tolerated in business relationships, but also destructive, a younger generation might bring an end to the types of stories described at conferences here.

While safety, harassment and generational bullying may not be session topics on the conference agenda yet, Lui feels younger people will advocate for gender equality in the industry’s top jobs. He’s seen women’s issues strike a chord at conference sessions he participates in, and says it’s time to expand the conversation. “There’s always a positive response from the audience,” he says. “We need to talk more. We need to hit taboo topics head on.”

Klopper sums up the discussion in her own passionate voice. “The choice should not be about survival in the industry, but instead about integrity, responsibility, respect and ethics.”

Disclaimer: If you need any legal advice, speak to an attorney who is skilled in the area and jurisdiction you require. The articles and advice on these pages do not create a client-attorney relationship and are not intended as legal advice.

Practical Advice: Inappropriate Behavior

  1. Be self-aware thinking about what could happen.
  2. Inform staff they are required to brief the supervisor, manager or person in charge immediately of an incident, and especially if they are going off-site for a meeting. Be very upfront. When people are outside their usual environment, they may act any way they want.
  3. Equip the on-site team. Whether attending, exhibiting or running a meeting, they need to be able to manage different situations.
  4. Let attendees know you have a zero-tolerance policy.
  5. It’s a good idea to include a general statement in your brochure or attendee information stating all attendees are expected to respect and work with others, and to maintain respect for the general environment.
  6. Encourage people to attend, but if they have a problem with the statement of behavior, you don’t want them there. It won’t prevent or stop the behavior, but you are putting yourself in a better position by including it.

Related Posts:

3 Taboo Topics for Meeting Planners

The Stuff No One Talks About

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