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Say No to Cyberbullying

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Harassment and bullying look different in virtual meetings and other digital spaces where members interact, but they still happen. Conduct policies need to catch up with the technologies associations are using today.

Though associations shifted many of their activities online during the COVID-19 pandemic, bullying and harassment haven’t moved entirely offstage. An association’s social media hashtags can get hijacked; remote meetings can get Zoom-bombed by pranksters or critics; email and chat platforms can be abused. And even with the possibility of physical intimidation removed, virtual meetings can still become venues for inappropriate conduct.

Even if an association already has a code of conduct in place for in-person meetings, “they should have a policy that’s more focused on the conduct itself,” said Paula Brantner, president of PB Works Solutions, which focuses on preventing workplace harassment. “You may also need a social media policy and moderation policy for online forums where members communicate. And the language needs to be clear and consistent across those policies.”

In addition to updating conduct policies to encompass the digital spaces where people interact, association leaders will need to consider how these rules are communicated to members and other participants in association activities.

New Codes

The Society for the Study of Evolution is among the organizations that has adapted its policies in this way over the past two years. For its 2020 and 2021 conferences, both fully virtual, SSE implemented a new code of conduct that addresses misconduct in virtual spaces and includes online-specific countermeasures, such as muting microphones and blocking video access.

The code is enforced in part by trained “conduct moderators” drawn from attendees. According to SSE Executive Vice President Andrea Case, attendees are invited to sign up to be moderators during registration, and the organization has hit the necessary number of moderators without having to recruit. (Such moderators are best drawn from members rather than staff, Brantner said, because “long-term staff can be linked to prominent members of the association and may not feel comfortable reporting [bad behavior]. There should be multiple reporting channels so attendees can report where they feel most safe.”)

Beyond recruiting moderators, Case said, associations can do two more things.

First, make the code visible: That means making it a part of the registration process—with attendees agreeing to abide by the code when they register—and reminding attendees about the code at the start of each session. Second is to be open with attendees after the fact about incidents that have occurred during meetings. SSE has partnered with two other scientific societies to create a code of conduct committee that develops policies, fields and investigates reports of misconduct, and delivers transparency reports about its work. These include incident reports, describe policy changes made by the committee, and share survey data on how the code is perceived.

Make the code of conduct visible by making it a part of the registration process and reminding attendees about the code at the start of each session.

Case said there were no serious incidents at SSE’s recent virtual meetings, and she believes transparency helps keep things that way. “It’s really important to tell the community how it’s working, because one of the things that’s the most important about this process is building trust in the process,” she said.

Beyond Meetings

There have been some positive side effects from the shift to virtual events. One is that in-person acts of intimidation and harassment aren’t a factor. And there’s a clearer record of the activity that occurs during virtual meetings.

“Participants aren’t in a room alone—there’s always a host or a staff person from the association in the room,” said Sherry A. Marts, president and CEO of S*Marts Consulting. “Sessions are recorded, so not only are there witnesses but there’s also a recording of what happened, and the chat box gets saved.”

But associations still need to be clear about what’s unacceptable in virtual spaces. “There should be something [in the codes of conduct and ethics] that explicitly mention online behaviors on message boards and that sort of thing,” Marts said. “The more clearly you can define the behavior that’s acceptable, the easier it’s going to be to enforce it.”

For SSE, the next step is to examine its role in curbing harassment that members may experience in external spaces like social media. SSE is a member of the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM, which was organized in 2019 and includes nearly 200 scientific organizations. One of its tasks is to create a code of ethics that can help associations address misbehavior in online spaces that are outside of their direct control.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more attention paid to how people are behaving on social media—inappropriate behavior or bullying or harassment or things like that,” she says. “Do we have a role? I think we do, and we’re looking for opportunities where we can help shift culture to create stronger, more welcoming communities. Establishing and enforcing expectations for behavior in virtual environments is one of those opportunities.”

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.

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