Conferences and Codes of Conduct

Nearly every organization has a code of conduct for its employees. These codes are usually explicit rules about what the organization’s members are and aren’t allowed to do, including the penalties – from reprimands to firing – for breaking those rules. Often there are also statements of the organization’s guiding values and principles, which employees are expected to uphold in carrying out their work or making decisions. But when employees go to professional events like conferences – events related to work but which take place outside the workplace – the rules of behaviour aren’t always as clear.

Behaviour at conferences is something that I’ve been thinking about as conference season is starting for me. Every year, away from the watchful eyes of their supervisors and their human resources department, some people act like idiots. They might do things like ask questions during a seminar or presentation with the sole intention of making the presenter look bad and making themselves look good. Or they might harass other conference attendees, usually at social events, by doing things like looking down women’s tops, making inappropriate comments about how someone is dressed, or uttering racist or sexist insults (I’ve personally witnessed all of these).

Surprisingly, though, many conference organizers are reluctant to crack down on these kinds of behaviours by attendees. At a very large conference, the organizers can’t keep an eye on every attendee at every single moment, so incidents of inappropriate behaviour may go unreported or unnoticed. The conference organizers or the association holding the conference may not know how to effectively discourage inappropriate behaviour. Or they may not want the hassle of dealing with the problem  – especially if alleged harassers are well-known or powerful. But the cumulative effect of not controlling harassment and other unprofessional behaviour at conferences, especially at an ongoing annual event, is that the inappropriate behaviour becomes implicitly accepted as the norm. And that can be a real shock and very difficult to deal with for the conference attendees who then become the targets of that behaviour.

Three of the professional associations I’ve been involved with have struggled with encouraging appropriate behaviour by attendees at their annual conferences – and, interestingly, all three struggles initially arose around the same issue: job interviews. When a university has a job opening, faculty members going to a conference will often  meet with attendees at the conference who are interested in the job. The meeting isn’t a formal job interview, but more of a chance for the faculty members to assess potential applicants, and a chance for the attendees to learn more about the university and the job.

A sign at the 2016 American Astronomical Society conference, notifying attendees of the society's anti-harassment policy. (credit: cnn.com)

A sign at the 2016 American Astronomical Society conference, notifying attendees of the society’s anti-harassment policy. (credit: cnn.com)

The initial crisis at all three conferences was around where job interviews could or should be conducted. All of these conferences provided large meeting rooms with tables for people to talk at, but the rooms tended to be very noisy when multiple conversations were going on. And if someone didn’t want it to be known that they were looking for a new job, they definitely didn’t want to be seen having a conversation in that room. The same problem happened in restaurants and other locations where other conference attendees might wander by.

So some faculty members started holding interviews in their hotel rooms. That may have been okay for the interviewers, but a lot of interviewees felt uncomfortable going alone to the hotel room of someone they didn’t know. And, inevitably, some interviewers tried to turn the job interview into something more like a date – which admittedly could happen in any setting, but which was even more intimidating for the interviewees when it happened in a hotel room. There were even reports of some faculty members pretending to have a job opening at their university as a way of getting people they wanted to be alone with into their hotel rooms.

All three associations first issued statements discouraging job interviews from taking place in hotel rooms. These statements noted that if a hotel room was the only feasible interview site, then the interviewer should at least tidy up the room – yes, highly educated adults really did have to be told to put away “personal items” in their room if they were going to host a professional discussion there.However, these statements mostly just annoyed people who were genuinely doing their best to act appropriately when conducting interviews. And the statements didn’t do much to address the power and status discrepancies that made many targets of harassment reluctant to complain about the behaviour they had been subjected to.

At all three associations, the conversation about job interview locations broadened into a general discussion of inappropriate behaviour taking place at the conferences. The associations then told people who felt they had been harassed at the conference to complain to the harasser’s employer. This was no doubt well-intentioned advice, because at least it involved a formal complaint, but it was problematic for two reasons. One, a lot of universities didn’t have language in their codes of conduct to address employees’ behaviour at professional events outside the regular workplace. And two, it was difficult, if not impossible, for people to make a meaningful complaint to someone else’s employer, because the complaint would involve institutional processes that the complainant would not be familiar with. Plus, if the harasser and the complainant were in different states or provinces, or even in different countries, investigating the complaint could be extremely expensive and time-consuming.

Eventually, all three associations realized that if they didn’t seriously address problems of inappropriate behaviour at their conferences, they would be cutting their own throats. Potential conference attendees would instead go to events where they felt welcomed and valued, and then the number of members of the association might decrease as well. Now, each of the associations has explicit policies around appropriate conference behaviour. The policies outline the behaviours that are unacceptable; establish a procedure for the association to deal with conference-related harassment complaints; and also define the penalties for harassment at the conference – which include not being permitted to attend the next conference; the association notifying the harasser’s employer of their behaviour; or cancelling the harasser’s membership in the association.

Having these policies in place doesn’t mean that inappropriate behaviour never happens – I know it still does – or that the complaint processes result in satisfactory outcomes. But it’s far preferable to having nothing, and since these policies have been implemented, I’ve seen much less inappropriate behaviour than I used to at these conferences.

More recently, along with individual associations and organizations, some industries are also developing codes of conduct for events within that industry. In the technology industry, which has had some serious problems with harassment at professional events, organizations using the Drupal content management system have developed a code of conduct for events within that user community.

This discussion of the code, by Palantir.net CEO George DeMet, also includes links to similar codes developed by other technology-based groups. I particularly like this code’s statement that “under no circumstances is bullying or harassment tolerated within our community, no matter how long you’ve been in the community or how many contributions you’ve made”. This specifically acknowledges that some people act like idiots just because they think their status will let them get away with it, and it’s important to be clear that such attitudes aren’t acceptable.

It seems silly that, in the 21st century, there still has to be a code of conduct at conferences to discourage professionals from harassing and abusing other professionals. But it’s heartening to see more and more recognition that inappropriate behaviour at professional conferences doesn’t just affect individuals. It makes the entire profession look, well, unprofessional, and it also excludes or alienates participants who might have a lot to contribute. Allowing harassment to continue at professional events, or pretending that it doesn’t happen, ultimately damages the profession itself, and having a code of conduct in place for conferences is one way to avoid at least some of that damage.

3 comments

  1. Like you, I’ve been stunned by some of the unprofessional behavior I’ve seen at conferences. It’s indeed a pity that organizations would even need to spell out even the most basic guidelines for good behavior, but better that, I suppose, than risk all the consequences you detail in your excellent post.

  2. This made me think of all the conferences I attended during my music biz career – I don’t think harrassment is strong enough of a word…but at the time, everything went and us girls never complained. Something I regret now.

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