Tempers Are Running High—Here’s How to Protect Your Staff

Tensions among members may be taken out on your employees. Here’s what you can do to keep your staff safe and empower them to address wrongdoing.

Maybe it’s two years of COVID-19 and the disruptions it’s triggered. Maybe it’s the ease of communication. Whatever it is, a recent thread in ASAE’s Collaborate online community [member login required] shows that more than one association has been dealing with an uptick of short-tempered members taking out their frustrations on their staff. Conscientious association leaders know that their staff members shouldn’t accept abuse as a part of their jobs.

“I remind associations that membership is a privilege. It’s not a workplace where they have rights to do certain things. And your meetings are private events,” said Sherry Marts, founder of S*Marts Consulting, a firm that works to make events and workplaces safer.

Consider these tips from Marts to more effectively support your staff and give them tools to protect themselves.

Create a Code of Conduct for All Parties

A code of conduct gives your entire organization and its members a set of rules to adhere to. The code should spell out what behaviors are expected, define unacceptable behavior, and describe the consequences of misbehaving. Your code of conduct should apply to both members and staff. And at in-person gatherings, it should apply to anyone present: your staff, venue staff, vendors, contractors, exhibitors, and all event registrants—including nonmembers. In other words, your code of conduct should protect your staff—not just members—from inappropriate behavior, bullying, and harassment.

“It’s not just how members are treating each other, but it’s also about the behaviors that staff experience,” Marts said. “So one way to protect your staff is to simply give them permission to set and hold boundaries.”

Keep in mind that your staff and members may forget that your code of conduct applies to all. Your staff may put up with bad behavior in the name of serving members no matter what, and your members may feel that they can’t be reprimanded because they’re being served by their associations.

Marts said that when she did code of conduct training sessions with organizations, it wouldn’t be uncommon for staff members to say to her, “If a member says something inappropriate to me, I can’t say anything back because I’ve had members threaten to get me fired.”

Of course, staff shouldn’t have to deal with bad behavior or threats, and they should be empowered to stand up to violators of the code. That’s why Marts suggested reminding everyone about your code of conduct at every opportunity. And in your code, state explicitly that there is an enforcement process in place for violators. Not only will this deter bad behavior, but it will also show your staff that leadership has their back.

“Slap it on every flat surface you can find,” she said. “Put it on signs all over the venue if it’s an in-person meeting, put it in meeting materials, put it prominently on the website, and have registrants tick a box saying they’ve read it when they register.”

Hold Active Bystander Intervention Training

When witnessing or experiencing harassment, Marts argued that most people freeze up or flee the situation instead of standing up to the offender, allowing bad behavior to continue. She recommended active bystander training to prevent this, which gives people techniques to overcome the fear of dealing with uncomfortable situations and take reasonable and responsible action.

“Again, it’s about giving people permission and the skills they need to feel confident intervening,” she said.

Put Next Steps in Place

To help staff overcome harassment or mistreatment, give people a place they can go for support. Set up a way for staff—and members, for that matter—to make anonymous reports of misbehavior, as victims are often deterred by fear of retaliation or developing a reputation.

You could also make sure you have contact information for national and local crisis centers in case a confrontation becomes severe.

Deter Repeat Offenders

When deciding what to do with a member who violates your code of conduct, Marts said to consider how they handle being confronted. If they’re genuinely apologetic, you don’t need to ban them from all future gatherings. But if someone is exhibiting what researcher Jennifer Freyd calls DARVO (deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender), it may be a sign that they’ll misbehave again if given the chance.

“If they’re not willing to recognize they did something harmful, they’re probably going to do it again,” Marts said.

(dzika_mrowka/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Michael Hickey

By Michael Hickey

Michael Hickey is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!