Denise Gold is associate general counsel at the Associated General Contractors of America in Arlington, Virginia.
Harassment and bullying ruin the welcoming environment that associations work hard to create at their events. A well-drafted and consistently enforced code of conduct can ensure a positive experience for staff and attendees and protect the organization from liability.
Meetings, conferences, conventions, workshops, retreats—they’re the lifeblood of associations. Staff work painstakingly to control an array of variables that can make or break an event, from the venue to the menu, the speakers to the entertainment, the sponsors to the marketing, and more.
Often neglected, until a problem arises, are efforts to control the tone of the event and the conduct of attendees. This is a mistake, particularly in the heightened awareness of the #MeToo era.
A caring and cautious association should establish a code of conduct for events. Adopting and publishing such a code helps to set a tone of professionalism and respect and to create a welcoming environment for attendees. It establishes expectations of staff and attendees, along with procedures to follow when expectations aren’t met. And, when properly implemented, it can reduce the risk of liability if bad behavior leads to legal proceedings.
When developing an event code of conduct, first decide what and whom you want to cover. The latter is easy: The code should expressly cover everyone attending the event, including staff, members, guests, volunteers, speakers, sponsors, and exhibitors.
As for what to cover, consider both the general values you want to promote and the specific behaviors you want to encourage or prohibit. Every code should explicitly promote an environment of respect and civility that is free of physical and verbal harassment and bullying. Surely your association has adopted a policy to protect your employees from a hostile environment. The event code of conduct provides an opportunity to demonstrate the same values, and extend coverage, beyond your staff to all event attendees.
The code may also cover behavior that does not constitute harassment but can disrupt your event. Examples include disorderly conduct caused by inebriation, actions that create unsafe conditions (like a trip hazard), and noisy activity that interferes with presentations (like side conversations and cellphones ringing). If privacy or intellectual property rights are a concern, then you might restrict participants from recording or taking photographs during sessions without consent. If antitrust is a concern, then include compliance with your association’s antitrust policy in the code (with a copy of, or link to, the policy).
Also require attendees to obey all applicable laws and venue policies. While attendees must comply with the law by virtue of the laws themselves, including this in your code provides notice that the association may impose penalties for unlawful behavior.
In addition to setting out which people and conduct are covered, the code should address how the policy will be enforced. Encourage attendees to timely report misconduct, whether they are targets or witnesses. Tell them how and to whom they should report inappropriate behavior. Offer multiple recipients to ensure that the reporting individual can bypass the alleged perpetrator. A common option is to direct attendees to notify “any association staff onsite.” If you choose that route, be sure to train all staff on how to respond.
Another part of enforcement is the establishment of consequences. When setting consequences, give the association leeway to exercise its best judgment under the circumstances, but include examples that demonstrate that the organization takes this seriously. For example: “If the association receives reports that a conference participant has failed to abide by this code of conduct, then the association may take whatever actions it deems appropriate, including, for example, expulsion from the conference without refund, notification of participant’s employer, and disqualification from attending future events.”
When drafting code language, write with the attendee’s perspective in mind. Avoid jargon that may confuse readers or turn them off. Be concise and lay out points in a reader-friendly format—people are more likely to read a brief policy that uses bullet points than a lengthy string of paragraphs filled with verbose prose. When possible, use examples to illustrate your points and to prevent ambiguity.
Various resources are available to help you with drafting. For anti-harassment, anti-bullying, and some other provisions, you may find useful language to borrow in your employee handbook. Beyond that, you can unearth numerous sample codes by searching the internet for “meeting code of conduct,” “event code of conduct,” or “conference code of conduct.”The ASAE Ethics Toolkit, developed by the ASAE Ethics Committee, contains several examples of anti-harassment policies and general codes of conduct. It can be found in the Models and Samples collection. But be careful to customize language taken from other sources to meet your organization’s particular circumstances and culture.
A code of conduct for events establishes expectations of staff and attendees, along with procedures to follow when expectations aren’t met.
It’s also good idea to consult your association’s attorney. Of course, the association has certain legal responsibility to employees who are targets of harassment and certain liability for employees who perpetrate it. The organization is not, generally speaking, responsible for the misconduct of nonemployees toward other nonemployees, even if the incident occurs at an association event. However, if association staff members are aware of, should be aware of, or helped to create the circumstances of the misconduct, then the organization might be held liable.
By establishing a protocol for exercising reasonable care and a process for reporting and correcting problems, a well-drafted and properly implemented code of conduct can reduce the risk of liability for harassment. On the other hand, publishing a poorly drafted code or failing to follow published procedures can raise the risk of liability. Accordingly, consultation with counsel is advisable, and proper implementation is essential.
The first step in implementation is to notify staff of the policy and train them in what they should do if they observe or hear about an incident.
The next step is getting the word out to attendees. A best practice is to integrate the code into the event registration process. Include a statement like “By attending the event, the registrant agrees to abide by the following code of conduct…” (followed by the text of the code) or “By attending the event, the registrant agrees to abide by the code of conduct posted at…” (followed by a link to a page on the association’s website). For online registration, you could include a mandatory checkbox by the language. Another option is to compile the code of conduct with other event policies, such as the cancellation policy and an image release, on one web page and require registrants to agree to all policies at once.
Don’t forget to notify exhibitors, sponsors, speakers, and others who do not go through the registration process. You may want to incorporate the code into speaker, sponsor, and exhibit space agreements. Some associations also distribute printed copies of their codes at events (in registration packets, for example), and some read them aloud in an appropriate setting onsite.
Finally, consider your code of conduct a living document. After some experience with it—say, a year—and regularly thereafter, review the code to assess how it’s working and what might need tweaking. All of these efforts will help you create a positive event environment and, in turn, maintain positive member relations.