Enlisting the services of an attorney is an integral step in a plan to prevent and address sexual harassment within an organization and at meetings and events.
We checked in with two prominent attorneys
who are well versed in and frequently speak
about legal issues involving the meetings industry: Barbara Dunn O’Neal and Tyra Hilliard.
Barbara Dunn O’Neal, partner, Barnes
& Thornburg, Chicago
What are some of the biggest legal issues
meeting planners and organizations holding the
events should be concerned about regarding
sexual harassment and misconduct?
It is important that organizations establish a safe
environment for their meetings and events. This
starts with a statement of inclusion for all and
highlights the professional environment of the
meeting. It also makes clear that should any
attendee engage in any conduct or statements
which are contrary to this statement, such attendee may be removed from the meeting without
refund. In addition to the statement, attendees
should be made aware of who they are to contact
on-site if they experience or witness inappropriate
conduct. That can be everyone from an “
ombudsman” person at a help desk or a number to text if
they wish to be contacted to address a concern.
What are an event organizer’s legal obligations
regarding sexual harassment and misconduct?
There is a legal duty for an event organizer to
have a safe environment for its event. That
includes everything from ensuring the venue
selected meets all codes and safety regulations
but also that attendees are not put in harm’s
way—either by a physical hazard or conduct of
another organization. However, if an attendee
engages in inappropriate behavior, the organi-
zation is limited in what it can do, as it can only
control the person’s attendance at the event and
not their employment. Individuals who report
that they have been the recipient of inappro-
priate behavior should report such behavior to
their employer as well, as ultimately, it is the
employer’s obligation to ensure their employees
are not subject to a hostile work environment if
their attendance or participation in the event was
What advice would you give for developing policies and procedures around sexual harassment
prevention and claims, particularly with regard
to meetings and events?
Draft a policy that is framed in a positive light—
focusing on professional behavior and conduct
conducive for learning and networking. The policy
should set high, positive expectations for attendees rather than focusing on the bad behavior. Bot-tom line: The policy should make clear that the organization has the right to remove anyone from its
meetings who is acting contrary to the policy. The
organization should have an on-site plan—just as
it does with other emergencies—as to what to do,
who to contact, etc. That is particularly important
given that confidentiality in any review of a matter
is critical, and there is always the possibility of a
defamation claim against the organization from
the person who is accused.
What is your advice for handling a claim during
a meeting or event, particularly if attendees
signed a code of conduct?
Confidentiality is key. Again, the organization
runs the risk of a defamation claim if the review
of inappropriate behavior is not conducted prop-erly. As such, each organization should contact
their legal counsel in advance of the meeting
to review the code of conduct and the on-site
procedures to review any claims.
How can planners and organizations best protect
themselves from legal action if a claim arises?
Establish that the organization set the stage
before, during and after the meeting to create a
welcoming environment and to ensure that there
is a process in place if inappropriate conduct
occurs. Components of the event—such as networking receptions with the service of alcohol—
should be closely monitored by the organization
to ensure any concerns with conduct can be
addressed quickly. Document, document, document and discuss with legal counsel.
Tyra Hilliard, attorney and professor,
College of Coastal Georgia
When the meeting planner is employed by the
event organization, what are some important
legal concerns regarding sexual harassment
and misconduct at an event?
Meetings are fraught with risk regarding sexual
harassment and misconduct because of their
very nature. We take people away from home,
keep them busy for long hours, put them in
hotels, and often add alcohol. It’s often a recipe
for disaster. So one thing meeting planners
and organizations need to focus on is creating
a safe environment. A meeting planner in one
of my sessions once said their staff took turns
being the “designated sober staffer” (after the
meeting functions were over for that day), so that
someone was keeping their head, both in case
something happened with an attendee but also
so they made sure the other staff didn’t act in-
appropriately. Another issue is making sure that
human resources thoroughly vets new employ-
ees. Negligent hiring—hiring someone that you
knew or should have known—had a propensity
for violence or other negative behaviors can
create a litigious situation.
What sexual harassment policies and procedures
should be developed within an organization?
Organizations should institute written policies regarding sexual harassment that include defining
what it is. Some behaviors that people truly think
are okay fall into the definition of harassment,
so educating them that this is not okay is part
of preventing the problem. Instituting scenar-io-based training regarding sexual harassment
is also wise, again, because it illustrates what
sexual harassment might look like and what the
reporting structure is for the organization. Finally,
there should be a multifaceted reporting structure because if the reporting structure is “report
it to your direct supervisor,” there needs to be an
alternative if the direct supervisor is the harasser.
How important is the development of a code
of conduct, including language on sexual
I think this is very important for employees but
also for those people involved with the meeting
or event who are not employees, such as board
members or volunteers. I have heard of numer-
ous issues involving board members harassing
meetings staff, often through some sense of enti-
tlement or power. If they are not employees, they
are not covered by employment policies, so there
needs to be a code of conduct and a due process
procedure for reviewing and addressing their
behavior, possibly resulting in their removal from
the board if their behavior is egregious enough.
BARBARA DUNN O’NEAL