Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 2013

Here's What to Include in Your Meeting's Harassment Policy

By Molly Brennan, Contributing Editor

want to be making up the rules at that moment, when you're trying to deal with the situation in the middle of conference? Do you really want to be making judgment calls at that point? Wouldn't you rather do it months beforehand, when you're calm and you can have some time to think about it?”

At PyCon 2013, held in Santa Clara, Calif., this past March, Kaplan-Moss and event organizers were presented with just that type of on-the-spot scenario. A female attendee complained that fellow attendees were making sexist and inappropriate jokes during a speaker's session. PyCon's code of conduct spells out exactly what conference staff should do in the event of a complaint. It begins, “Prepare an initial response to the incident. This initial response is very important and will set the tone for PyCon” — and then delineates specific actions. Because of that, PyCon staff knew how to respond, and did, according to Kaplan-Moss. When staff became aware of the complaint, Kaplan-Moss said, they sought out the alleged victim and had a private, several-minute conversation with her to gather facts. Staff then asked the two men making the reportedly offensive comments to step outside the ballroom. “We said, ‘Those sort of jokes are not appropriate in public.’ They said, ‘We agree,’” Kaplan-Moss said.

The victim later blogged about the situation, writing: “I was a guest in the Python community and as such, I wanted to give PyCon the opportunity to address this.” She expressed approval of PyCon's handling of the incident. Likewise, someone who identified himself as one of the two men making the jokes also later praised PyCon's response. “They pulled us from the main convention and got our side of the story,” he wrote on a tech message board. “I gave a statement, apologized, and thanked them for upholding the con's integrity. They felt I was sincere and let us leave of our own accord.” Kaplan-Moss told Convene: “From our point of view, the system more or less worked. She reported to us this happened, we talked to the guys involved, we gave them a formal admonition, and they recognized what they did was inappropriate.”

While some organizers worry that putting a policy in writing will create a negative impression, Scalzi says just the opposite is true. “Look at the program guides for a science-fiction convention,” he said in an interview with Convene. “A lot of them have a weapons policy, but nobody ever says, ‘Oh, my God. If they have a weapons policy, they must be having duels all over the place.’” Plus, how can it hurt? “If you are absolutely, 100-percent certain that this stuff will never happen, then there is no harm whatsoever in having a harassment policy,” Scalzi said. “It's better to have a policy that never ever gets used, but signals that you understand there are concerns in a larger cultural sense, than to not have a policy the one time that it needs to be used.”

What to Include, What Not to Include

When it comes to crafting a harassment policy, there are do's, don'ts, and pitfalls concerning the language. “You could be really vague and say, ‘Harassment is not okay.’ But if you don't spell anything out, then you end up with people who will take advantage of that and argue that what they did isn't defined as harassment,” Kaplan-Moss said. “On the other hand, if you spell everything out to the nth degree, you could have people who say, ‘Well, it wasn't on the list, it's not harassment.’”

“The problem with a vague policy is, when somebody reports something, there's this question of, is it actually harassment?” Aurora said. “There are people who think, ‘I was just hitting on her.... I wasn't harassing her, I was flirting.’”

The most effective policies don't spell out every possible scenario, but do sketch out — generally — what is prohibited, according to Laura Worsinger, an employment-law attorney with Dykema, a national law firm. “The policy should state that the organizer is committed to providing an environment that is free of harassment and everyone who attends is expected to comply with this policy,” said Worsinger, who has yet to help a convention draft such a policy, but routinely counsels employers on harassment issues. “Then it needs to define what unlawful harassment is. You need to set parameters, but don't want to be too specific.”

Debra Katz, a noted sexual-harassment attorney and founding partner of Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington, D.C., added: “You need to define inappropriate behavior, but also make clear it's an illustrative list, not an exhaustive list. Any good policy needs to [spell] out that it's the unwelcomeness of the behavior that is the problem — unwanted touching, unwanted remarks of a sexual nature, unwelcome comments about people's body or appearance.”

The policy of Westercon, the annual West Coast Science Fantasy Conference, is blunt: “A neat tattoo or a sexy, excellent costume does not come with permission to touch, nor is it an invitation to do so. Always ask first (and wait to receive permission) if you wish to touch clothing, property, or the person. Costuming is not consent. ‘No’ means no. ‘Stop’ means stop. ‘Go away’ means go away.”

When crafting DLF's harassment policy, Frick decided to take a slightly bigger-picture approach, and intentionally called it a code of conduct. “It sets the bar of a return to civility,” she said. “I tried to make it about broader behaviors and about encouraging respectful dialogue. It clarifies for people that we all come from different places and different organizations and different expectations, but when we're here and participating in this event, this is how people are expected to engage.”

Give Your Policy Teeth

A harassment policy that stops at prohibited behavior doesn't go far enough, Katz said. An effective policy also must explain what a victim should do in the event of harassment, as well as how the organizer will respond. “A policy only works when there is appropriate enforcement and people feel like it's not just words on paper,” Katz said, “but there are serious ramifications if people run afoul of it.” For example, the policy for Loscon, the annual convention of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, states: “If people tell you ‘no’ or to leave them alone, your business with them is done. If you continue to attempt to have contact with those people, you maybe removed from the premises.”

Just as the language referring to offensive behavior should not be overly specific, the section of the policy referring to organizer response should be similarly high level. PyCon organizers recently revamped their policy's language to include a range of responses that conference staff might use, from warning a harasser to cease his or her behavior, to ending a speaker's talk early if the speaker uses inappropriate language or images, to requiring a harasser to leave the convention immediately, to banning a harasser from future events “either indefinitely or for a certain time period.” “It's not like we're instantly going to reach for the lifetime ban in every case,” Kaplan-Moss said. “We made it clear that zero tolerance doesn't mean zero judgment.”

Incorporating specific action steps for victims — including phone numbers and contact names they can reach out to on site — is equally important, Kaplan-Moss said. The PyCon policy includes detailed guidance on what a victim should do in the event of harassment: “If you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please contact a

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