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Avoiding Harassment and Discrimination Cases at Conferences

Avoiding Harassment and Discrimination Cases at Conferences


By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Dean, School of Business, American Public University

This year I stumbled across an unusual requirement signing up for a conference: Participants were required to agree to some specific behaviors to register.

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The National Space Society (NSS) required attendees to its annual national conference to agree beforehand to a Policy Regarding Harassment and Discrimination. The organization was holding attendees responsible for abiding by a professional code of ethics.

Would Signing the Agreement Absolve Attendees from Liability and Responsibility?

Why would any conference attendees sign this? My first thought was to absolve themselves and the organizers of liability and responsibility for anyone who might get out of control at an event where there were no direct consequences.

If you had the opportunity to sponsor a conference, how would you handle the following scenarios?

  • One of your participants sexually assaulted an attendee.
  • A group of attendees starts a fight at a local restaurant over cultural differences.
  • A participant openly harasses a conference speaker because of his/her sexual orientation.

We would like to think that individuals associated with our profession and standards are of like mind and know how to conduct themselves accordingly. However, that is not always the case.

To avoid these problems, think about what the NSS chose to do to avoid trouble. Remember, these hypothetical incidents did not occur in a specific workplace; therefore, the specific policies of the would-be culprits’ employers may not apply to incidents outside the conference venue.

A Few Words of Wisdom on Preventing Harassment or Bullying outside the Workplace

APU Professor of Management Cynthia Gentile emphasizes the importance of stepping back and realizing that “It’s easy for folks to feel more collegial and friendly at an event like a conference. However, it is important for attendees to understand that the same laws and regulations that prevent harassment or bullying inside the workplace apply to professional conferences or work events that occur outside of the workplace.”

Most employers likely have anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in place at the job site. However, it is a good idea for professional associations also to have written policies protecting them from such incidents. It is not enough to rely on employer policies that may or may not explicitly apply to outside events.

Furthermore, conference attendees may be independent contractors or otherwise only informally connected to a specific employer. Organizations should seek legal guidance on drafting policies that broadly comply with applicable laws and regulations to ensure that conference sponsors and attendees are protected.

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About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean for the School of Business and the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.