by Jonathan T. Howe, Esq. | May 01, 2011

Meetings generally
allow for a mix of work and reward. Attendees are away from home, and they might feel as if the rules of their everyday lives are relaxed somewhat. But what happens if an attendee is faced with unwanted sexual advances?  

Sexual harassment on the road can occur in the hospitality suite, the sales office, the show floor, a breakout room or the hotel elevator. Planners and attendees alike need to be reminded that federal and state laws are in place, and offenders are legally responsible for their actions, even if those actions seem minor.

It's the Law The legal basis for harassment charges begins with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits any form of discrimination based upon race, sex, color, national origin or religion.

In 1976, the United States attorney general established sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination. In 1991, provisions were added expanding rights to collect compensatory and punitive damages for sexual discrimination or harassment in the workplace.

An actionable sexual harassment claim always relates to the employer/employee relationship, so a member of an association who feels harassed at the annual conference has no claim against the association, but she might have a claim against her employer, who required her to attend the event or to do business with the harasser.

Sexual harassment manifests itself in two forms. The first is in the employer/employee relationship or so-called quid pro quo harassment -- "this for that." The second relates to the presence of a "hostile environment." Planners most often deal with the second situation at a meeting.

A hostile environment is created when sexual advances from a colleague make it difficult for the victim to remain at a session, reception or even the hotel. Aberrant behavior is any unwelcome physical contact; uninvited or unwanted sexual advances; or an offensive overall environment, from the use of vulgar language to the presence of sexually explicit photographs or other materials, the asking of sexual questions or the telling of stories with a sexual overtone.

Your Role Can a meeting professional be held liable for sexual harassment by attendees registered for the event? Can an organization be held responsible for allowing or perpetuating a "hostile" meeting environment? These are very gray areas without clear precedent, and it is better to conclude that anything is possible than to take the "it can't happen at our meetings" stance.

Setting the right professional tone for the event starts with the program materials. If you already have a policy set out for drinking alcohol responsibly, add a mutual-respect paragraph asking participants to treat each other with dignity.

Seek competent legal advice as soon as you are aware of any situation that will affect you or the organization. If the victim is a fellow employee, turn to the employee policy manual, which should address the issue. If the victim is an attendee, refer the person to security. If the accused works for the hotel, bring it up immediately with hotel management.