Sexual Harassment at Meetings: 8 Immediate Steps Planners Should Take

How meeting planners can respond to sexual harassment at a meeting or conference

Planners should understand their company's sexual harassment policy and be prepared with an action plan when an incident takes place at a meeting or event.

Whether in the halls of Congress, a movie set, a Ted Talk environment or your event, the issue of sexual harassment has taken on tsunami proportions. Meeting and event planners should have policies in place for how they should respond if an incident happens at their conferences, conventions and special events.

There is a difference between harassment in general and unlawful harassment as defined by various laws governing the workplace. As to the former, organizations now realize the need to be diligent with policies that extend beyond the workplace itself. Wherever harassment takes place, it can affect the reputation of both the accused and the accuser, as well as the organizations involved. Initially, all such issues should be dealt with confidentially. 
What is a meeting professional to do? Sensitivity and awareness training for all members of your staff is a good first step. Additionally, establish firm policies and standards of conduct to be communicated to all those in attendance at your meetings. What is desired is respectful behavior from all.
Many organizations have alcohol-awareness programs governing the consumption of alcohol at functions. A similar code of conduct should cover relationships between the sexes. If there is an incident, the organization needs to be responsive, understanding and prompt.
For the meeting professional, here are some steps to consider if an incident occurs on-site. 
1. Have an individual designated to address this issue, whether it be between an employee and another employee, between an employee and an attendee, or between an attendee and a supplier, another attendee or an employee of the venue.  

2. Obtain information for an incident report. Include the names of the alleged victim, alleged offender or other identifying information about him or her, a description of the alleged harassment, the date and approximate time of the alleged harassment, and the place of and circumstances surrounding the incident.

3. Obtain other relevant information, such as the names of other people who might have been involved in or witnessed the incident.

4. If there is physical harm or threat, ask the alleged victim if he or she needs medical attention or wishes to contact law enforcement. In all such circumstances, take no such action unless requested by the individual.

5. The incident report you prepare should include how the alleged victim responded to the harassment, as well as a description of the incident from the alleged offender.

6. If no medical or law-enforcement help is requested, ask whether the alleged victim would like you to discuss the matter with and possibly take action regarding the alleged offender. If the response is negative, then you should retain the information but take no further action at that point.

7. If there is a positive response, arrange a private meeting to discuss the matter with the alleged offender.

8. In all circumstances, it is important to be nonjudgmental and keep any opinions to yourself, and to record all discussions in the incident report. Keep the information confidential at this point.
Please note that the above is only a partial list. Many of our clients have very detailed policies and procedures dealing with harassment in the workplace and off-site. Download sample policy language from the International Labour Organization here.

It is important to get the facts. We often say there are three sides to every story: the victim's, the alleged offender's and the truth. In all situations, be sure to consult with your legal counsel to avoid any possible legal problem for yourself and the organization.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner of the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., specializing in meetings and hospitality law. Email questions to him at [email protected].