Meeting harassment is far more common than many of us realize or want to admit. In a recent survey we conducted, about 60 percent of the survey participants reported experiencing harassment or bullying at a meeting. Although the survey sample was not random, this percentage is comparable to the incidence of street harassment. In multiple surveys in several countries, 80 percent or more of the women responding report experiencing harassment on a regular basis.
So what can nonprofits and membership organizations do to solve this problem? First, we need to understand that in-person events like conferences can be fraught situations. Bringing large groups of people together in semi-professional, semi-social situations sets the stage for potential misconduct. Participation in conferences is often critical to professional advancement, but it also creates an ideal environment for ill-intentioned people to harass other attendees, most frequently (but not always) based on their race/ethnicity, gender expression, or sexual orientation. That’s a challenge.
We also need to understand why many organizations struggle with diversity and inclusion.
In our experience, we’ve found many positives with membership organizations.
Most membership organizations know that the Millennial generation, which will soon be the majority of our workforce and membership base, is the most diverse generation we’ve ever had in North America. And the yet-to-be-named generation coming up behind them is even more so.
Most membership organizations are also aware of the ever-increasing number of studies showing that increased diversity and authentic inclusion produce innovation, better decision making, faster and more creative problem-solving, better outcomes, and an improved bottom line.
Most membership organizations know that embracing and promoting diversity and inclusion (D+I) is the right thing to do, on many levels.
Membership organizations also have a secret power: the depth and variety of relationships you have with your audiences. Those deep, ongoing relationships with boards of directors, members, and the industries and professions you serve provide an excellent opportunity to have a significant impact on diversity and inclusion, but also carry with them increased responsibility to create change.
And many membership organizations have adopted strong statements that claim a commitment to D+I among their leadership and membership.
But where organizations often stumble is in turning those beautifully crafted and carefully vetted D+I statements into real change among staff teams, volunteer leadership, the memberships, and the professions and industries you serve.
So, when it comes to in-person events, the key to fostering change lies in creating and enforcing strong codes of conduct.
Seven ways to prevent and address meeting harassment
Here are seven ways to effectively prevent and address meeting harassment:
- Create a strong meeting harassment policy that includes a clear, simple reporting mechanism (the Entomological Society of America’s code of conduct is a good example).
- Train your staff.
- Program a pop-up into your online event registration, and require all meeting registrants to indicate that they have read it and agree to abide by it. That doesn't mean they'll read it, it just means they can't claim they didn't know about it.
- Put the policy in a prominent place in your meeting program, like inside the front cover. Don't bury it on page 55.
- Make sure your code of conduct includes detailed information about how and to whom to report an incident: name, cell phone number, and email address. If you want to encourage reporting, this should be one person, not just "staff."
- Put the policy with the contact information on signs that are posted throughout the meeting venue, including the exhibit hall and especially at the entrances of any event where alcohol is served.
- Announce the policy at the start of all plenary sessions.
Following these seven steps accomplishes two crucial things: you've put potential harassers on notice, while also sending a clear message to women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others that you are committed to creating a safe and welcoming meeting. If you actually enforce the policy by removing harassers from your meetings and banning repeat harassers from registering and attending, what you'll see is a spike in incident reports for the first couple of meetings, and then a rapid drop-off as the worst of the serial harassers are weeded out, and the others learn to rein themselves in.
The preceding is a guest post by by Elizabeth Engel and Sherry Marts, authors of Include Is a Verb. Elizabeth Weaver Engel, M.A., CAE, is CEO and Chief Strategist at Spark Consulting LLC. Elizabeth has 20 years of experience helping associations grow, in membership, marketing, communications, public presence, and especially revenue, which is what Spark is all about. She speaks and writes frequently on a variety of topics in association management. When she's not helping associations grow, Elizabeth loves to dance, listen to live music, cook, and garden.
Sherry A. Marts, Ph.D., CEO of S*Marts Consulting LLC, is a skilled workshop leader, facilitator, writer, and speaker with a lively personality and a wicked sense of humor. A former association CEO with a wide-ranging background in biomedical research, nonprofit management, public education, and research advocacy, Sherry provides expert consulting services to nonprofits and academic institutions on diversity and inclusion, harassment and bullying, and interpersonal communication. She also offers executive and career coaching with an emphasis on career and leadership development for women. Her interest in the issue of harassment and bullying lies at the intersection of her professional life as a woman in science, and her previous experience as a women’s self-defense instructor.