Curbing Bad Meeting Behavior: Is A Formal Code of Conduct Needed?

Meetings are all about learning and networking with peers. But what happens when someone behaves badly? Should associations adopt a formal code of conduct?

Going to an association meeting or event usually is a positive experience for those involved, whether you’re an attendee, exhibitor, volunteer, or staff member. There’s the education, the networking opportunities, the face-to-face time with industry leaders—the list goes on and on.

We wanted to let our community know we are paying attention and that our meetings will be a safe and productive place for all of our members, attendees, staff, volunteers, and supporting vendor staff.

But, as with other things in life, with the good occasionally comes the bad.

In this case, I’m referring to bad behavior on the part of your meeting attendees, staff, and volunteers. More specifically, verbal or physical harassment directed toward another attendee, speaker, exhibitor, volunteer, or staff member. Whatever the case or whoever it comes from, such conduct creates an environment that no association would want at any meeting. It can put an organization at risk for a lawsuit, and it can be difficult for an association to navigate depending on who’s involved and what policies and procedures are in place.

And apparently it’s a topic that has several in the community talking, as it’s been the subject of a lengthy discussion on ASAE’s Collaborate forum (ASAE member log-in required) that began late last month.

Close to 20 association execs chimed in, looking at the issue from all sides. If an association has a formal code of conduct or harassment policy in place, how far does it extend? For example, does it apply to offsite and “after hours” events? Others debated whether an association should even have an official policy and, more broadly, what it says about our society that such policies would be necessary.

One association mentioned in the Collaborate discussion—the Entomological Society of America—decided to adopt a formal code this year. Luckily for ESA, its Entomology 2014 Code of Conduct was a proactive measure, not a reactive one. According to Executive Director David Gammel, CAE, its community of scientists was talking about other recent independent scientific meetings that had some rather horrific cases of harassment. ESA decided to create conference policies so that attendees would know what is and is not appropriate at ESA events and how they can seek relief if subjected to inappropriate conduct.

ESA wanted “to let our community know we are paying attention and that our meetings will be a safe and productive place for all of our members, attendees, staff, volunteers, and supporting vendor staff,” said Gammel on Collaborate.

ESA’s code includes statements like, “Harassment of ESA participants will not be tolerated in any form,” and “If a participant or exhibitor engages in harassing behavior, ESA leadership may take any action they deem appropriate, ranging from a simple warning to the offender to expulsion from this and future conferences.” It also contains contact information for a staff member whom an attendee may get in touch with to file a formal complaint.

Another group that recently approved a formal conduct policy is the American Chemical Society. Its Volunteer/National Meeting Attendee Conduct Policy [PDF], issued by the ACS Board of Directors, says it “expects its volunteers and national meeting attendees to display the highest qualities of personal and professional integrity in all aspects of their ACS-related activities.” What follows are seven points covering everything from behavior deemed unacceptable to how to report violations to how the board will review evidence and take action.

Joining ESA and ACS with a formal policy is the American Library Association. ALA’s Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences includes wording and policies similar to the others, but it also addresses speakers and exhibitors specifically. It asks speakers to “frame discussions as openly and inclusively as possible and to be aware of how language or images may be perceived by others,” and exhibitors are told they “must follow all ALA exhibits rules and regulations and ALA policies.”

While I won’t debate the pros and cons of associations adopting formal harassment policies or codes of conduct (I’ll leave that up to readers), I will say that what I like about the three I mention here is that they explain their conduct expectations clearly, give a point of contact for filing a complaint, and lay out the steps the organization will take to review evidence and potentially punish offenders.

Does your organization currently have a code of conduct or harassment policy in place, or is it considering one? If so, what’s included in it? Share your association’s approach in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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