Unfortunate as the Bill Myers case is, it has focused the attention of the meeting industry on the issue of sexual harassment, an issue people need to think about, asserts James H. Youngblood, director, meetings and exhibits, American Heart Association in Dallas, and a PCMA board of directors member.
"We in the meetings industry are a pretty collegial group," he says. "We kiss and hug and are very friendly. I think we tend to forget that the age of innocence is over. You have to be very thoughtful about what you say and how you behave."
The industry needs to engage in consciousness-raising, Youngblood says. Managers within associations need to take responsibility for their own behavior and set an example for their staffs.
Legal Lessons Youngblood's point about management taking responsibility was given sharp legal teeth by two recent Supreme Court decisions, which place a greater burden of responsibility on employers for preventing sexual harassment. While employers could always be held liable in cases of quid pro quo harassment (where an employee is offered some sort of benefit, such as a promotion, in exchange for sexual favors), even if they didn't know about it, now employers can also be held liable in cases involving a sexually hostile workplace, whether or not they were aware of the problem.
And employers must take strong proactive steps. Whereas in the past, employers could "just throw a policy in a handbook and say to an employee, 'You should have known,' now employers must actively promote sexual harassment policies," says attorney Vicki Donati, a member of the labor and employment group with the Chicago-based law firm Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg. Every employee must be educated about the policy. Supervisors must be trained in enforcing the policy and know how to recognize when a hostile workplace exists, Donati says. And if an employee makes a complaint, employers must take prompt remedial action.
While the new decisions make things tougher on employers in one sense, they also provide them with a means for defense against suits. If there is a policy in place and the employer took action in response to an allegation, that is recognized as a defense by the courts, Donati explains.
Another outcome of the Supreme Court rulings, says Donati, is that courts around the country are expanding employers' responsibility for other forms of unlawful harassment, such as racial or religious harassment. "Get your policies in order," she suggests, "expand them to include all forms of harassment."
Association Quandary Associations are in a difficult position, says Donati, because harassment situations don't occur just between employees. A member might harass a staff member, for example. "How do you mete out discipline to somebody who is a member? When you have completely unpaid folks who you need very much to survive, it is not easy to say, 'Don't come around here, anymore.'"
But no matter how tough it is, "Employers no longer have the luxury of saying, 'We're not going to lose business over this,'" says Donati. "[A claim] could cost you your business. Associations are not well-insulated financially. A big judgment would make losing a member look very small in comparison."
Planners' Protection Plan While the onus is on the top executives in associations to develop and enforce a strict sexual harassment policy, there are steps meeting planners can take to protect themselves, their staffs, members, and organizations from harassment situations.
* Action Plan: As a meeting planner, you may be the person a staff member turns to if an incident occurs at a convention. Make sure a chain of communication is established before anything happens, so you know whom to turn to if there's a problem.
* Firing Volunteers: If ais doing something inappropriate, tell him or her to stop. If that doesn't work, take steps to remove the person's authority, suggests Donati. "If a member is sitting on a board, he or she can lose that position, or lose the chairmanship of a committee." Diplomacy is useful. "Usually, you can work it out so they resign instead of being ousted. It's a good compromise."
* Convention Control: Create a harassment-unfriendly environment. Inviting spouses and children to events can help, says Donati. Print your anti-harassment policy in promotional materials. "Let people know that harassment during the course of conventions is prohibited," she says. "That sends a message to employees that 'You don't have to live with this,' and says to attendees, 'We will not tolerate this.'"