Lessons From the Ethics Crisis at the Romance Writers of America

RWA's ethics inquiry into a member had so many missteps that the entire board has resigned. A report sheds light on how your association can avoid such a meltdown.

What role does an association have when it comes to disputes among members? The crisis at the Romance Writers of America has been providing a few lessons on the matter, though not in the way anybody in the organization would have wished for.

To make a long and complicated story as short as possible: Last fall RWA fielded formal complaints from two members about fellow member and RWA Ethics Committee Chair Courtney Milan regarding tweets she made alleging racist conduct. RWA’s Ethics Committee (with Milan abstaining) convened to discuss the matter and decided to suspend Milan from RWA for a year. Under the association’s process, the decision was approved by the RWA board.

One board member complained that they were asked to “rubber stamp” a decision.

The move exploded spectacularly, with the larger romance community asking (especially on social media) why one of their own was punished by RWA for speaking her mind. RWA walked back the decision, but the damage was done: By the end of 2019, eight board members had resigned, and by February 10, the entire board and two staff leaders had resigned. Among the board’s final decisions was to commission a full report on the incident.

That report—conducted by the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, which represents numerous associations (including ASAE)—was released last week. It is a fascinating and often dispiriting document. Pillsbury’s charge was not to relitigate the complaints against Milan but to clarify the problems in the process. There were a lot of those, and if there’s a bright side here, the report shows how RWA and other associations might avoid similar problems in the future.

Most prominently, though RWA had a substantial code of ethics, it was one that had been patched together over time in a way that made its standards and processes vague. The code prohibited “invidious discrimination” but did not define it, and each complaint was addressed by a different ad hoc ethics panel, which made consistency an issue. Ultimately, the Ethics Committee was uncertain about how to address the complaint against Milan but felt pressured to do something that respected the prohibition.

Coincidentally, RWA’s president expressed concern about exactly that at the time Milan was writing the tweets that prompted the complaints.

“There isn’t any guidance right now, and I see the potential for this issue to blow up and be very messy because everyone comes at this from a very personal place, and we now have different ethics panel[s], which means no two cases should get the same people,” she wrote in an email to RWA’s board and staff leaders. “The potential for accidental unequal application of the ethics rules seems pretty big.”

Exacerbating the problem was the step in the process that required the board to consider and approve the Ethics Committee’s decision. Confusion about the process led the board to be told that it had to move on the decision but not consider the evidence the committee did. The board had the option to reject the committee’s decision, but as the report states, “several board members nonetheless reported to Pillsbury that they felt pressured not to take the approach of returning the report to the Ethics Committee, based on the tone of the responses to their questions.” One board member complained that they were asked to “rubber stamp” the decision; it seems a reasonable complaint.

Plainly, this is no way to handle an ethics issue, and the report suggests that RWA was so over-encumbered with rules and processes that its ironic effect was that everybody was moved to react hastily, on instinct.

“My greatest takeaway is that RWA had an ethics code that was open to interpretation and had other policies that, though they believed they were inclusive, didn’t spell out what that meant or to whom and how it applied,” says Joan Eisenstodt, an association consultant and former chair of ASAE’s Ethics Committee.  “The language RWA has, as do many other professional societies, is not measurable, and thus it’s difficult to ascertain what is and is not a violation of a code of ethics.”

Pillsbury’s report includes a number of recommendations on how to fix the damage, but they all circle around two points: deciding what you want a code of ethics to accomplish, and then buckling down on educating the relevant parties about how to handle it. A code can be simply aspirational or have a process behind it, but it should involve a clear conversation with members about what it wants. The crisis stemmed partly from “the lack of a shared understanding among RWA members of the purposes of the organization and the appropriate reach of its conduct rules,” according to the report.

“One of the things RWA is going to have to do is reach out to all the many groups of people who were wronged by this,” Milan said in an interview last week with a leading romance website, Smart Bitches Trashy Books. Talking with members about what they need from their association’s ethics code is a critical conversation to have. And it’s better to do it when you’re not doing damage control.

(marietjieopp/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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