Is a Conference Ombuds Program Right for Your Association?

Attendee safety is a top priority for associations, which is why some are hiring conference ombuds to serve as a confidential and neutral resource for participants who want to share concerns.

Every association wants their conference attendees to feel safe and welcome at their events. But, at the same time, if an attendee does face harassment or witnesses other unwelcome behavior, there needs to be a system in place that allows a conferencegoer to easily report it.

In that past, that system has typically included training staff, consultants, or even volunteer leaders on bystander intervention and how to respond when someone approaches them about an incident.

While that system has worked for many groups to curtail bad behavior, others are looking at additional options that either ease an attendee’s anxiety about reporting or provide better feedback to the association about issues surfacing at their events. One route they are going is hiring a conference ombuds. At the conference, people would go to the ombuds for help with dealing with everything from harassment to free speech and integrity issues to problems about the hotel to issues related to the association.

“This type of ombuds is an independent, neutral, impartial, informal, and confidential resource,” said International Ombudsman Association (IOA) Executive Director Chuck Howard. “They help to resolve issues informally and help people with options on how they can surface an issue—while always holding all the communication with those seeking assistance in strict confidence.” One exception to maintaining confidentiality, according to Howard, is if there appears to be imminent risk of serious harm.

Along with serving as a confidential and neutral resource for attendees, the ombuds also provides feedback to the organization.

“Without breaching the confidentiality of who comes to see them or what they spoke to them about, they are not only able to provide feedback on the nature of issues raised at the conference but also any insights or observations about systemic issues relating to the conference or association,” Howard said. “As a result, there may be some actions an organization would want to take, like implementing a conference code of conduct or adding sessions to future conferences that address the issues the ombuds shared.”

A few associations have already decided to bring conference ombuds to their annual meetings. Among them: the American Finance Association, American Political Science Association, Society for American Archaeology, and American Educational Research Association.

“The annual meeting ombuds program reflects AERA’s strong commitment to fostering an inclusive, supportive, and respectful environment for all who participate in the meeting,” said Executive Director Felice J. Levine. “Introducing an ombuds at the annual meeting is an important step in AERA’s ongoing effort to enhance and expand its activities and initiatives aimed at preventing and responding to sexual and other forms of harassment or misconduct.”

For those of you interested in learning more about conference ombuds programs, IOA’s recently released Guide to Setting Up a Conference Ombuds Program could be a good place to start.

“Most of the people who put on conferences really want to have good conferences, and safe conferences, and conferences where there’s open and healthy dialogue,” Howard said. “I wouldn’t overlook the ability of an ombuds’ presence to have some measurable impact on the behavior of people.”

What benefits could a conference ombuds bring to your association’s conferences? Please share in the comments.

(taa22/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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