Meetings in the Post-Pandemic Era
Safety Essentials

Is Your Event Code of Conduct Up to Date?

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For many organizations, 2022 marked the return to in-person meetings. But did they update their code of conduct to match the atmosphere they want at their events? Here’s advice to help you ensure your code is ready to guide attendee behavior.

For many professionals, it’s been a minute since they’ve attended a large, in-person event. If more than two years of virtual and hybrid meetings have caused people to forget how to act when they get together, then pointing them to your association’s code of conduct can help.

Peggy Berg, founder and chair of the Castell Project, a nonprofit working to advance women leaders in the hospitality industry, has helped develop a code for the field. An effective code of conduct can set the tone for events, she says.

“At any gathering, all participants—whether they work [for the organization], they’re attendees, they’re leaders, or they’re interns—all participants should feel safe, welcome, respected, and engaged,” Berg said. “That’s the basis of a code of conduct. Our behavior affects other people, and we need to recognize it and take care that we’re helping everyone involved have the opportunity to be engaged.”

The kinds of behaviors that event codes of conduct address are not surprising, said Julia Judish, special counsel at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

“They’re not unusual rules. They’re what you would expect anyone, even without an event code of conduct, to comply with,” Judish said. “It’s helpful to state explicitly, ‘These are the values and expectations and what can happen if someone does not follow the rules.’”

Code Basics

Effective codes of conduct can cover both in-person and online events, and they have a few elements in common, Berg and Judish say. These are three critical code basics:

Clarify reach. A code of conduct for an event should be clear that it covers both member and nonmember attendees and applies only to official event activities, Judish says.

“It’s important the reach of the code corresponds to what the association has the ability to take action on and enforce,” she said. “There could be behavior that occurs at a voluntary social event that an attendee finds objectionable. If the behavior is taking place outside of the event, without association staff present, the association doesn’t have the ability to take action or enforce it.”

Keep it brief. Berg notes that a code needs to be easily understood by attendees. “It can’t cover every eventuality,” she said. “A very tight code of conduct can’t be right in every single circumstance because human beings and situations are infinitely variable. So, you want a code of conduct that’s brief, that doesn’t place blame, that is solutions-oriented, and that is really positive in its goal of making conferences and events welcoming and comfortable and productive for everyone involved.”

Make it visible. To ensure awareness of your code of conduct, Berg and Judish recommend that you have attendees agree to the code when registering, and then draw attention to it again at the event’s opening ceremony.

“Simply reminding people that there are these expectations hopefully will help avoid ever having to take action under a code of conduct,” Judish said. “That’s the goal, right? You want to have an event code of conduct that you never have to invoke because everybody complies with it.”

Berg mentioned that at a conference she’d attended, the group did exactly that—reminded attendees of the code of conduct. “At their opening remarks, when there was a full house in the main room, the conference organizers actually mentioned it and they specified what they expected,” Berg said. “They didn’t make it punitive. They didn’t accuse anybody of anything. They were simply very clear that we’re all leaders in the industry and we all need to be aware of it and consider our behavior accordingly.”

“Simply reminding people that there are these expectations hopefully will help avoid ever having to take action under a code of conduct.” —Julia Judish, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP

Training and Enforcement

Once a code of conduct is in place, it needs to be enforced. Most staff members will need training in how to carry out that responsibility while an event is in progress.

Judish says it’s important not to confuse event codes with general member codes of conduct because they require different types of enforcement (see sidebar). Member code violations require due process. At events, issues often need to be dealt with swiftly.

“With an event code of conduct, it’s very much here and now,” Judish said. “You may have an attendee who is inebriated or belligerent. You just need to remove them from the event or block them from the community discussion, in order to protect people in the moment. It’s important that everyone who registers for the event agrees that the association has the right to remove them.”

Associations that want to separate staff from enforcement can hire someone to assist. “I have seen more associations engage a third-party provider to be a hotline or provide an ombudsperson to be a recipient of complaints,” Judish said. “It’s not required, but it’s an option.”

In some cases, a staff member may be the target of inappropriate behavior, Berg notes, adding that young women should be trained in how to react if they get inappropriate comments or invitations from attendees. “If you haven’t had the chance to think through [a situation] in advance, you’re not prepared, and you can’t respond quickly because you’re trying to process an unexpected indignity,” she said.

While the pandemic changed meetings significantly and introduced new ways for associations to bring members together, there hasn’t been much change in codes of conduct. “By and large, what is considered unacceptable behavior by event attendees has remained fairly constant in recent years,” Judish said.

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

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