As the #MeToo movement has gained momentum over the last year, people from all professions are feeling more comfortable coming forward to share stories of workplace harassment.
Fast forward twelve months and the topic is still top of mind, showing just how critical it is to shine a light on inappropriate behaviour.
Unfortunately, inappropriate behaviour happens in the events industry too – and today I’m placing it front and centre in this post.
With “partying” comes responsibility
Event organisers (ourselves included) often highlight the “party” atmosphere as a benefit of attending. Most people, after all, enjoy doing business with people they like and welcome the chance to further socialise and network with industry peers.
But as event professionals, we ultimately feel responsible for everything that goes on during our events. This means during our conferences and at the parties we host.
I’m sincerely sorry to say that, despite our efforts, a number of incidents of inappropriate behaviour were reported to us after our September event. We’re sorry this happened, and we promise to do better in the future.
Like other event organisers, I fear that shining a light on this behaviour ever happening at our events may hurt our ability to attract speakers and sponsors.
However, rather than hide what happened, I feel it’s important to speak openly to reiterate that such actions will never be tolerated at our events.
Harassment at industry events is much more common than most are willing to speak out about. It’s a painful subject to address. But I believe that it’s even more important than ever that we, as event organisers, start taking concrete steps to make our events safer for our attendees.
Below, I’ll outline the details of what happened at our most recent event and – most importantly – the steps we’re committing to take to create the safest environment possible for Learn Inbound attendees.
What Happened At September’s Conference
Friday, 14th September: On the evening following our two-day event I was informed by a speaker that an inappropriate remark was made by a male attendee to one of the women managing a sponsor’s exhibition stand.
He propositioned her after winning a game the sponsor was running at their exhibition stand. At this time, we hadn’t yet been able to identify this person but we continued to investigate with our sponsors, venue staff and our team.
Saturday, 15th September: The day after our event I posted the following tweet to highlight what happened:
If you’re left wondering why a ‘Code of Conduct’ and event safety initiatives are so important at events, hopefully, this will serve as a reminder.
I was informed shortly after our event had ended on Friday that an inappropriate remark was made by one attendee to another.
— Mark Scully (@ScullyMark) September 16, 2018
This tweet made one woman feel comfortable enough to send me a direct message on Twitter telling me that she too had experienced inappropriate behavior at our event. To protect her anonymity, I’ll call her ‘Sarah.’
Sarah told me that a male attendee had taken her business card during the event, which contained her personal contact number. On Friday morning (the second day of our event) he messaged her on WhatsApp to suggest they watch Netflix in bed together. Following this inappropriate comment Sarah didn’t respond to any further messages from this attendee. I’ll refer to him as ‘James.’ Unfortunately, this won’t be the last time his name will come up with regards to inappropriate behaviour at our event.
As Sarah still had the conversation on her phone, we were able to identify James’ real full name and company of employment.
Monday 17th September: Another woman sent me a direct message on Twitter to say that she and several other women were left feeling “creeped out” by the actions of a fellow attendee.
Similar to Sarah’s experience, Louise (again, not her real name) and friends she made at our event handed over their business cards to James as it appeared that he wanted to build connections with others in the industry for a business he was working on.
I arranged a call with Louise the following day to learn more about what had happened at the event. During the phone call and in a follow-up email, Louise told me that James:
- Grabbed one of the women around the waist at the after party
- Repeatedly tried to hug one of the women at the after party
- Messaged one of the women on WhatsApp about their appearance on a recent holiday after stalking her Instagram account
- Messaged one of the women on Instagram multiple times even though she had barely spoken to him at the event
- Lied about dancing with one of the women at the after party in order to strike up a conversation with another woman via WhatsApp the following day
- Tried to claim he previously matched on Tinder with one of the women and not a professionals networking app in order to spend more time with them
I reached out to James’ employer to find out whether he was still employed by them as the company name wasn’t mentioned anywhere on his LinkedIn profile. At this point I was introduced to his manager (let’s call her Debra) who immediately apologised for his behaviour and welcomed introductions to the women who had come forward about him.
Sunday 14th October: Debra emailed me to inform me that disciplinary action had been taken against James. She also emailed the women who had come forward to let them know too.
Our Previous Efforts To Protect Our Audience
Before our September 2018 two-day event, we had rolled out a number of initiatives to deter anyone from behaving inappropriately. At the time we felt confident that this should be enough to keep our events safe and free of harassment.
Here are the steps we took:
1) Provided a Code of Conduct
We created a Code of Conduct and linked to it from our website. The Code of Conduct set the tone for acceptable behaviour at our events, and let our attendees know that we will do everything in our power to stamp out anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
We made it clear to attendees that they can highlight any bad experiences to our team. In addition, we provided our team with concrete steps to follow if any inappropriate behavior was brought to their attention so they could tackle it immediately and discreetly.
Our code of conduct applies not only to our attendees, but also to our volunteer team, AV technicians, catering staff, sponsors, speakers, outside suppliers, event organisers and Learn Inbound staff.
We adapted our Code of Conduct from the example conference anti-harassment policy from the Geek Feminism Wiki. If you haven’t added one to your site yet, I suggest taking a look at it and amending it to match your brand, values and contact details.
2) Anonymous Reporting System
According to a survey conducted by The Society for Human Resource Management, 11% of non-management employees said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment within the past 12 months. Out of those, 76% opted not to report it due to fear of retaliation.
We understand that not everyone will feel comfortable with walking up to a member of our team to highlight inappropriate behaviour. So, over the past 12 months, we provided each of our attendees with a wristband that has a contact number they can contact anonymously.
Our team monitors the phone at all times during and after the event for any text messages or phone calls from attendees. To date, we haven’t been contacted by anyone via our event safety number, but we hope it will act as a deterrent to those who behave unprofessionally at our events.
3) System for Seeking Immediate Help
Last year at Learn Inbound we began to add ‘Ask Angela’ posters to the men’s and women’s toilets at our event venues to encourage attendees to highlight any inappropriate behaviour to our team. If attendees are made to feel uncomfortable, they can discreetly let venue staff and our team know there’s something wrong by asking for “Angela”.
Once alerted, staff can take attendees aside to chat privately about the issue and take actions to address it. For example, they might contact security, remove the harasser from the venue or, for more extreme cases, call local law enforcement.
To date, no-one has asked for “Angela” at our events, but just like with our anonymous reporting system, we hope it will act as a deterrent to stop people from acting unprofessionally.
Other conferences, please take note of this – this is awesome. It’s in the ladies bathroom at Learn Inbound. pic.twitter.com/b9FmXLnjC8
— Susan Wenograd (@SusanEDub) March 15, 2018
Our commitment to creating a safer environment
The incidents at our most recent event highlighted that although we had the best intentions, we could have done more to protect our attendees.
Here are some of the ways we plan to make Learn Inbound a safer environment in the future:
Better communicate and enforce our code of conduct by:
- Including a reminder in emails: We need to remind attendees about our Code of Conduct in our pre-event emails. To date we’ve expected people to scroll down to our site footer and click the link. I doubt most people have read it due to how poorly we’ve communicated its existence.
- Providing additional points of contact: We need to add additional contact information for other members of our team to our Code of Conduct. At the moment I’m the only point of contact, and some people may feel uncomfortable with getting in touch with a white male who also happens to be the event founder.
- Briefing our MC: Our MC needs to refer to the Code of Conduct in their opening remarks on both days of the event. They’re responsible for setting the tone of the event so it’s imperative that they make it clear how inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with.
I have the utmost respect for how Andy Croll welcomed his audience at 2018’s Brighton Ruby. He mentioned their code of conduct, outlined examples of the types of behaviours that wouldn’t be permitted at the event, and gave his contact details in case any attendees experienced any behaviour that made them feel unsafe.
We aspire to do something similar at Learn Inbound in the future.
- Enforcing compliance: Attendees should have to read and comply with the Code of Conduct as part of the ticket registration process. If they’re not willing to comply, they won’t be permitted to attend our events.
- Mentioning our safe area: We need to let attendees know where they can find our safe area (registration desk) in the event venue.
Improve how attendees can receive anonymous help:
- Upgrading our phone: Our event safety phone is an older model smartphone which doesn’t have WhatsApp, Viber or other messaging apps installed. As text messages are no longer commonly sent by people, we’ll replace our phone with a newer model and let our attendees know how they can get in touch with us.
- Making point of contact clearer: We need to make it clear to attendees who they’re contacting if they send a message or make a phone call about inappropriate behaviour. At the moment no one knows who is on the receiving end of text messages and phone calls made to our event safety number.
- Briefing our MC: Our MC needs to explain the purpose of the wristbands and how attendees can get in touch with our team. Some attendees may have felt the number was for queries about the event itself, rather than a way to flag inappropriate behaviour with our team. This may have prevented them from getting in touch with us to ask for help.
- Updating our Code of Conduct: We will add the safety number to our Code of Conduct alongside contact numbers for other members of our team, venue staff and local law enforcement.
- Including a reminder in emails: Pre-event emails to attendees should explain what the event safety number is for. This should remove any confusion when wristbands are handed out.
Make it easier for attendees to receive immediate help:
- Being more visible: Our team needs to be available at all times at our networking parties. As we’re a relatively small team supported by volunteers, there have been times where we’ve left the parties early due to tiredness from managing the event during the day.
- Highlighting our safe area: We need to highlight that the registration desk is the safe area in our conference venue and is manned by our team at all times. For our party venues, we haven’t assigned where people can go if they’d like to report an incident, so we’ll need to address that at future events.
- Displaying posters in men’s and women’s bathrooms: In the past, we’ve been guilty of sometimes displaying the posters only in the women’s bathrooms. While statistics show women mostly tend to be the victims for harassment at events, all event safety initiatives should be gender neutral. It will also help to make clear to both sexes that any inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with immediately.
- Providing better training: Previously, some staff at venues have brushed off the need for the ‘Ask Angela’ posters as they’d never had any cases of harassment flagged to them. We need to provide better training to staff members to help them understand the importance of the posters, and to get clear on the steps they should take to tackle inappropriate behaviour. For example, when victims report incidents, staff should know where to go, what to say, and who’s the point-person onsite taking reports. This way, victims will never be left alone and will feel supported by the venue and our team.
- Mentioning the punishment: While our ‘Ask Angela’ posters explain how our attendees can discreetly let our team know there’s a problem, they don’t deter inappropriate behaviour by highlighting what punishment perpetrators will face. If someone doesn’t adhere to our Code of Conduct they’ll get expelled from the event without a refund. In the event of more severe cases of harassment, we’ll contact local law enforcement. In future, we’ll note these forms of punishment on the ‘Ask Angela’ posters.
Your voice matters
To sum up, we’re sincerely sorry for what happened.
The Learn Inbound team will never tolerate anyone making other attendees feel uncomfortable at any of our events. We’re fully committed to doing our absolute best to stamp out harassment.
If you ever feel uncomfortable at any of our events, we hope you feel reassured enough to reach out to us using one of the methods outlined above. And, if you have any other suggestions for how we can make Learn Inbound safer in the future, please let us know by contacting us anonymously through our ‘Contact us’ page or by sending an email to [email protected]
I am deeply committed to Learn Inbound’s vision – helping digital marketers safely connect with like minded people, so we can all learn from each other.