A medical-related association ran into an unusually difficult situation at its annual conference last February: Some of its members made inappropriate comments and physical contact with staff members. Something needed to be done both to protect staff members and to protect the association from future liability. “These were not incidents that could be misinterpreted,” says the association's executive vice president, who asked that his association remain anonymous. “These were egregious violations.”

While it may have been new to this association, this is a not-uncommon scenario these days, according to Vicki Donati, a member of the labor and employment group with the Chicago-based law firm Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg. “In fact, it's becoming common to the point where most state laws, and the federal law, apply not only to sexual harassment that occurs between employees, but any harassment that involves the employee during the course of the job.”

This organization already had a policy on the books to address staff-to-staff harassment. The association's counsel advised that, because it was a nonprofit entity, members could be viewed as employers of the staff because they technically are owners of the association. Therefore, all they needed to do was to revise the existing policy to make explicit that it holds for member-on-staff harassment as well. The board passed the policy unanimously.

Then it became a matter of communicating the policy far and wide to the membership. It first was sent out in a newsletter to state and local offices around the country, along with a letter encouraging each office to institute a similar policy to protect its own staff members. Now the association plans to draft a shorter statement that will be included in confirmation letters, programs, and other materials that will be distributed at its conventions.

Tips for the Front Line

As a meeting planner, you will likely be on the front line should sexual harassment happen at your event. Here are some things you can do to minimize the risk:

  • Ask your organization's leadership to put a policy in place before this happens at your meeting, and be sure it is communicated to attendees. “You have to make it clear that you take this matter very seriously, but in a way that doesn't look like a witch hunt,” says this association's executive vice president.

  • Let staff members know that sexual harassment can be an issue at meetings, and that harassment can be committed by anyone — it could be men harassing women, as it was in this case, but it also could be women harassing men, or same-sex harassment.

  • Make sure the staff members know whom they should turn to should a problem arise.

  • Emphasize to your staff members that they did nothing to cause the harassment. “Make sure staff members understand that it's not their fault, and that they need to report what happened and be confident that there won't be any repercussions for reporting it.”

Some Other Things to Consider

  • Think your conference is safe because you don't include any functions where alcohol is served? Think again: Only two of the five incidents in this case occurred at this conference's social functions; the others happened during daytime business meetings.

  • What if the harasser turns out to be a member of your board of directors, or someone else in a leadership position, rather than a run-of-the-mill attendee? MM's legal columnist Jed Mandel, a partner at Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg, says, “If you aim at a king, you better shoot to kill. While a person in a leadership position can't legally retaliate against someone for reporting them, they are in a position to affect that person's career with the organization.” He advises bringing in other board members, preferably those who are senior to the accused, to make the initial contact.

  • You may be able to shift the responsibility for action. “If members who sexually harass your staff attend as part of another medical society or a pharmaceutical company, then you can go to their organization and ask them to approach their employee,” says Donati. “Those companies have their own liabilities under the laws, and they have their own policies to follow.” Likewise if a hotel employee is harassed by your attendees. “That's their problem,” says Mandel.