Meetings & Conventions - Coping in a Seller’s Market -
Pictured, from left to right: Kathleen Kilmer, Sara
Torrence, Patrice Boulanger, Kimberly Snouffer and Teresa
Meeting planning is an industry rife with temptations&
How can department managers set and enforce guidelines to be sure
professionalism is not compromised?
By Sarah J.F. Braley
lovely silver clock worth about $45 arrives
on a planner’s desk, sent by a sup-plier eager to win her business.
If that desk sits in the offices of the American Nursery and
Landscape Association in Washington, D.C., or at the National
Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., the
clock is repackaged and sent back. No gifts, no matter how small,
are accepted at ANLA; and planners at NIST, a government agency,
cannot accept gifts worth more than $20. But if the clock lands on
the desk of a meeting planner at Schaumberg, Ill.-based Motorola
Inc. or Sprint Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., it can be accepted. The
limit at Motorola is $50; at Sprint, it is $100.
Gift limits are just one element of an organization’s ethics
policy, whether it’s a formal document or a verbal guideline passed
down by managers through the years. Is it OK to take that fam trip?
Or those box seats to the game? Or the hotel bonus points?
There is no absolute right or wrong way to conduct business in
the meetings industry, insiders agree. But planners are in a
position to make ethical decisions all the time. Some organizations
prefer to leave it up to the individual to make responsible
choices; others feel it’s top management’s duty to tell employees
what the appropriate action should be.
In the McLean, Va.-based meetings department of the professional
services firm Ernst & Young, nothing is written down, but all
six people on staff know the rules: No gifts, fam trips or hotel
bonus points are accepted. Similarly, the ethical guidelines for
employees of Fisher Scientific, a manufacturer and distributor of
scientific products based in Pittsburgh, do not specify how
planners should go about their business. “I just know what is right
and what is wrong inside my head,” says Amy Armstrong, meeting and
At NIST, as at all government agencies, policy is set by the Office
of Government Ethics. “We really do have very detailed guidelines,”
says Sara Torrence, CMP, chief of special activities.
Meeting managers who would like to review current ethics
policies or create guidelines for the first time should consider
the following steps.
List the temptationsGifts. Note if planners can accept gifts up to
a certain dollar amount, and provide instructions for the return of
more lavish gifts.Familiarization trips. Describe the
circumstances under which free trips can be accepted. Is it OK to
take a trip just to scout for possibilities, or must the department
seriously be considering the destination for a future meeting? Does
the organization insist on paying all expenses for site-selection
travel? Some meetings divisions don’t take free trips for any
reason. “I haven’t been on a fam trip in 20 years,” says Lannie
Wendorf, associate director for Ernst & Young.Hotel points. Many chains offer planners
frequent-booking programs to encourage repeat business. For
instance, Starwood’s Preferred Planner program, which has 14,000
members, awards one point for every three dollars spent, up to
20,000 points per event. The points can be cashed in for such perks
as airline miles, room upgrades, charitable contributions and $100
gift certificates to Meeting Professionals International for
registration fees, dues and other payments.
Word of mouth isn’t as effective as a written document, experts
agree. An ethics policy should be distributed to everyone in the
office, posted in a central location and discussed whenever a
question arises. Below are primary areas the policy should address
with regard to meetings.
In devising department policy, be specific about whether it is
OK to accumulate these points. “I think companies are split on this
issue,” says Ellen Wright, vice president of brand strategy at
Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott Hotels, Resorts and Suites. The hotel
chain offers three points per dollar for catering events and
meeting room rental at all full-service properties for groups of 10
or more rooms, plus points for the guest rooms; planners can earn a
maximum of 50,000 points per meeting.
“Professional planners sometimes take their jobs very seriously
and don’t want to look like they are swayed by the personal
benefits they would gain,” Wright says. “Part-time planners feel
meetings are an extra job that gets put on their plates, and they
feel they deserve the incentive.”Social invitations. Having dinner with a
vendor or attending a supplier-sponsored event might seem
innocuous, but many managers feel that accepting such invitations
from suppliers they will never use takes unfair advantage and
wastes the supplier’s money. Specify the circumstances under which
planners can accept such invitations.Comp rooms. Can meeting planners use free
rooms and suites earned in negotiations, or must they be reserved
for speakers and other VIPs?Expense accounts. State your organization’s
rules for reimbursement. Include such details as per diems, mileage
and personal phone calls while on the road.Special requests. Many planners field requests
for special treatment during meetings or for extra travel perks.
“Executives have asked for limousine service and suites,” says
Pamela Bondy, ethics manager at Sprint. All new hires at the
communications company have to read its “policy of conduct” and
must certify that they have read it and will abide by it. “We
expect executives to follow the same procedures as everyone else,”
Bondy adds. Department guidelines should instruct meeting planners
in handling these requests. Does one particular level of employee
routinely receive special treatment, or is everyone from the CEO on
down expected to travel coach and stay in a standard room?Personal travel. Quite often, properties
invite planners to visit on their own. The department’s policy
manual should indicate the circumstances under which, if at all,
employees can take such trips. Can they go for vacation? Can they
only accept the offer if the property is being considered for a
future meeting? Is this practice prohibited altogether?
The hiring process
Once a policy has been established, education and enforcement come
into play. The process of teaching new hires what will be expected
of them starts, in a sense, before they have even been hired.
Finding a staff member whose values match those of the organization
can begin with the ad you place.
“We use the word ‘ethical’ in job postings, says Kellee Magee,
director of meetings and business programming for ANLA. “Putting it
in the job description helps unethical people self-select out.”
The self-selection process also can take place during the
interview. A study by Randi L. Sims, Ph.D., found that people with
low ethical standards don’t like to work for firms with high
standards. “If you express exactly what you are looking for during
the interview process, people will choose to work for you or not
to,” says the associate professor of business at Nova Southeastern
University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “And people whose standards
match the company’s are less likely to leave the job.”
Some managers pose ethical scenarios during interviews. Magee
asks job candidates, “Tell me about a time when you came up against
an ethical challenge and how you handled it.” Then she presents a
meetings-related scenario and asks the candidate to respond. One
example she uses: “You get a call from a supplier whom you know
well, and he says, ‘I’d love for you to come on this fam trip.’
When you respond, ‘I don’t have business in that city,’ he counters
with, ‘That’s OK.’ Now what do you do?”
Says Magee, “It’s not 100 percent foolproof, but we haven’t had
to let anybody go because of an ethical problem.”
Wilton, Conn.-based Deloitte and Touche also includes ethical
role-play in the interview process. “You can get a feel for the
type of people you are interviewing based on their beliefs in right
and wrong,” says Margaret Moynihan, director of conference and
travel for the accounting, tax and consulting firm.
Another tactic: Ask candidates what ethics practices were in
place at their last job, suggests Joan Eisenstodt, president of
Washington, D.C.-based Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, a meetings
management and consulting firm. If they belong to an industry
association, ask what they know about its code of ethics. “How they
react will tell you a lot,” she says.
Once on board
After a planner is hired, the department manager should be sure the
organization’s ethics policies are fully explained. Most companies
cover ethical standards to some extent during orientation, but
meeting planners encounter a number of situations that do not arise
for people in accounting and payroll scenarios that might not be in
the company manual.
“I like to see department heads talk about their expectations
with the new employee,” says Randy Pennington, an Addison,
Texas-based business consultant who speaks on leadership issues,
including performance and ethics. “Don’t leave something to chance
when a decision needs to be made.”
At Motorola, a manager recently realized the company’s strict
policy against accepting planner points from hotels might not be
trickling down to the administrative assistants who plan a handful
of meetings a year. “If they don’t know about the rules, they’re
the ones who get caught, and that’s not fair,” says Evelyn Laxgang,
CMP, director of strategic projects and events. “We are now making
sure the message is communicated.” A case study using this
situation is being created for the ethics class offered throughout
Guidelines are particularly strict at the National Institute of
Standards and Technology. Every person who has signature authority
over payments of $2,500 or more must go through ethics training
yearly. “We cannot accept anything over $20, and if we go to a site
inspection, we have to pay our own way,” adds Sara Torrence. “All
new employees go through a two-day orientation that includes a
great deal on government ethics.” She also keeps Dallas-based MPI’s
“principles of professionalism” on her wall to share with the five
people who report to her.
Ongoing teaching is essential, says ANLA’s Magee, who doesn’t
accept any gifts. “We can’t hammer it home when we give them the
keys to the bathroom. It’s a much larger deal. With new hires, we
take the first opportunity with a trip or trade show to say, ‘Let’s
go through some issues here.’ We try to discuss it anecdotally, so
people aren’t afraid to talk about it on a daily basis.”
Do as I do
Whatever the official policy is in the organization, employees will
follow the example of their bosses and peers.
Backing this up is another study conducted by Sims, published by
the Journal of Business Ethics in 1999. She presented a
series of dilemmas to 245 students who also were employed full
time. Among her findings: “People pay attention to what their
supervisor is doing and why other employees are rewarded. Or they
follow what their colleagues get away with.”
Teaching by example is very subtle, says Pennington. “Young
planners might not see department heads dealing with the tough
issues of internal politics, but they do see them dealing with
everyday issues,” he says. “For instance, we say that work begins
at 9 a.m., yet the manager typically doesn’t show up until 9:30.
[If managers break the basic rules], on some level, employees ask
what other corners the manager will cut.”
“I feel this is crucial,” says Magee. “When I take new staffers
to trade shows, I don’t pick up any tchotchkes, any property
information or drop my card in bowls.” Her small staff of four
knows Magee declines planner points, only goes on site visits when
she is seriously considering using the property and never takes a
suite at the hotel when evaluating it for her attendees. “How am I
going to see the experience my members are going to have,” she
says, “if I’m not staying in the common sleeping room?”
Big brother is watching
If there is a breach in policy, the initial corrective action
should be aimed at helping the staff member understand management’s
expectations. “We have an open discussion,” says Magee. “I’ll ask
the person to explain how they got to this course of action and
then talk about other options.”
Moynihan at Deloitte and Touche takes the same approach. “We
have not had anyone breach a policy twice,” she says. “If that did
happen, all privileges would be taken away.”
The punishment is harsher at government agencies. “You can lose
your job,” says Torrence of NIST. “Because we have ethics lectures
every year and we have to sign off that we attended them, it’s
pretty important that you follow the rules.”
SHOULD YOU DO IT?Posted on the wall
in the meetings office at the
American Nursery and Landscape Association in Washington, D.C., is
a six-point ethics test taken from The Right Thing: Ethics
Inaction/Ethics in Action
, by William D. Brown, Ph.D (Wayne
Smith Co., Washington, D.C.). “I walk through some of these
examples with new planners,” says Kellee Magee, director of
meetings and business programming. She adds, “There are no right or
Does your chosen course of action seem logical
and reasonable? Forget what others might say. If it makes sense to
you, it is probably right.
Does it pass the test of sportsmanship? If
everyone followed the same course of action, would the results be
beneficial for all?
Think about where your plan of action will
lead. What effect will it have on others? What effect will it have
Will you think well of yourself when you look
back on what you have done?
Imagine this is not your problem, but an issue
faced by the person you most admire. How would he respond?
Would it bother you if everyone knew about your
decision, especially family members and friends? Chances are,
decisions made in hopes no one will find out are not ethical.
MEETING PLANNER’S PLEDGEEvery new member who joins
Convention Management Association receives a card delineating the
organization’s credo on ethical conduct. On the back is an area
where planners and suppliers can sign the following pledge, which
department heads might want to share with their charges.
• I will use my position to the benefit of my
organization, avoiding the reality or appearance of personal gain
that may conflict with my employer, client or supplier.
• I will deal in an honorable and
straightforward way with suppliers, clients and my employer.
• I will fully disclose to my employer
individual inducements, incentives or gifts of any kind.
• I recognize that only ethical professionals
will excel in their careers.
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