The Dark Side of Meetings

By Christine Born, March 3, 2015

A group of senior meeting professionals meets at an “Industry After Dark: The Stuff No One Talks About” session at SPINCon 2014. The women are from different generations and come from myriad backgrounds, but have one thing in common: Each has stories about experiencing harassment, either in industry jobs or at conventions, or both.

One supplier was urged by her colleagues to throw her room keys on the table along with theirs during a convention-networking event. When she saw her direct supervisor leaving someone else’s room the next morning, she knew it was time to find a new job. Another woman received an invitation to a post-event client dinner. When the client’s club turned out to be a strip club, she and another female guest called a cab and promptly left. Management’s lack of support, especially in a case involving an important client, left her little choice but to resign. “The stories are disturbing and infuriating,” says Tracey Smith, CMP, CMM, contract meeting manager, Tracey Smith Events | Marketing. “We are mostly women and very vulnerable in the industry.”

Harassment can hurt attendance. Women rarely report harassment, especially job-related incidents. Instead, they often limit their participation at meetings, especially events where they have been subjected to unwanted behavior.

The stories are not limited to age or gender, and are not always about sexual harassment. Bullying and other inappropriate behavior after hours, oftentimes fueled by alcohol, are rampant throughout the industry. Though rarely discussed in the light of day, such behavior leads to toxic environments at some conventions, posing serious questions for planners. How liable are meeting professionals and the organizations they represent for sexual harassment and other threatening behavior during events? Can they be held responsible for perpetuating a hostile environment?

“You can make all the policies you want, but if someone is going to act badly, you’re not going to stop it,” says Wayne Wallgren, owner and president of WorldWide Incentives, Inc. “There are usually enough responsible people around that if someone they are working with is getting out of line, they will help move the person out.”

Michele Klopper, CMP, who manages her own business, MK Meetings & Events, tends to agree. “We can’t really control things like overdrinking, especially when you see it at higher levels,” she says, adding that she has had to drive VPs home. “It never ceases to amaze me that people think they can get away with what they could not do at work. They seem to lose sensibility.”

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