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Expert Advice: Safe Meeting Spaces

By Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.


In late 2017, the #MeToo movement had rocked America, spreading through Hollywood’s elite circles and then to the world of politics and even shaking up everyday people that were unified in taking a stand against sexual harassment. As the movement has proven, no industry is spared or given a pass anymore when it comes to bad behavior, including the meetings and events industry.

“You have to have policies in place,” affirms Jonathan T. Howe, ESQ, president and founding partner of Howe & Hutton, Ltd. and general counsel for MPI, ISES, and other organizations within the meetings profession. “You always want people who are attending to feel comfortable,” he continues, and feel that they can trust that your functions are ones where they can feel safe and where harassment will not be allowed. “You don’t want to have a reputation that your events are a bad environment to be in.”

Even though Howe admits that, as a third party organization, a planner is not legally responsible if harassment allegations arise (unlike an employer-employee relationship), it’s still a smart move especially given the times we now live in where people in decision making roles have to protect those they represent. “We see so often in program materials to drink responsibly, it’s not a bad idea to also include to act responsibly with social interplay,” says Howe. Here are more of his tips.

1. Create a policy: Write a formal policy down about what you will not accept and how you will address the situation when someone feels they have been harassed and what kind of response they might expect. Also important is to make sure you have a policy for how the accused will be treated with an equal opportunity to respond.
2. Develop a code of conduct: Be forthright with attendees about what is acceptable if you are going to attend your meeting and explain that if it’s not followed you reserve the right to have the person removed from the meeting.
3. Disseminate the info: Make sure attendees are clear on the anti-harassment policy. Put it in written materials that are delivered to attendees or in the meeting app so they are aware there is a policy in play.
4. Conduct leadership training: Howe says there are many effective training programs that can be done as a group exercise to ensure everyone is on the same page about what behavior is proper and can discern when even innocent-seeming situations arise. “If you have a speaker who says, ‘We’ve been sitting here for an hour, I want everyone to get up and turn to your left and give that person a shoulder massage,’ some might take offense to that,” says Howe as one example.
5. Get solid advice: Howe recommends always consulting with a lawyer or HR team to see what they recommend in these situations and to have them review policy materials before they go out to the public.
6. Know if you’re covered: As an independent planner, it’s also essential to ensure that the organization you work for has a policy in play.

JONATHAN T. HOWE, ESQ., President & Founding Partner of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., is well known as an author/speaker. He is a frequent a speaker for ASAE, FSAE, and others. He serves as general counsel for MPI as well as ISES, SITE, and for the U. S. Chamber Committee of 100, among others. As the founder, past president, and board member of the Academy of Hospitality Industry Attorneys, Jon was named as the first recipient of its Hospitality Industry Attorney of the Year Award. He is legal editor for Meetings & Conventions, The Law and the Planner, and special advisor to the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Meetings and Travel.