Wednesday, January 29

Dealing with harassment at academic conferences: An interview with lawyer Paula Brantner

Terri Givens

by Terri E. Givens

During my recent trip to Washington, DC, I was able to connect with attorney Paula Brantner — and given our current newsletter’s focus on ethics, I was interested to hear about the work she is doing with academic associations and conferences.

Paula, as the President and Principal of PB Work Solutions, builds harassment and toxic workplace prevention systems that reflect an organization’s values and that can transform an organization’s culture. She works with nonprofits, associations, small businesses and political organizations on training, systems and policy development to ensure objective reporting and promote harassment-free environments, in the workplace and at conferences and meetings. She is currently building a nationwide harassment reporting and grievance program for a national political organization that is the first of its kind. Paula recently wrapped up 18 years (including eight as Executive Director) with the nonprofit Workplace Fairness, which educates about workplace rights, and has been an employment lawyer representing the employee's perspective for over 25 years. She is a Missouri native with degrees from University of California’s Hastings Law School and Michigan State University.

What are some of the trends you are seeing in organizations dealing with harassment at conferences?

Paula Brantner

Paula Brantner

While some groups have been aware of the need to address harassment and similar conduct for years, others are just waking up to understand that harassment can be a significant issue at academic conferences and meetings. Issues that were once left to onsite staff and meeting planners or hotel/convention center security to handle are now being squarely presented to the professional organizations themselves. Conference attendees are more aware of harassment-related issues and are more willing to come forward, with the expectation that the sponsoring organization knows what to do when asked to address harassing conduct.

There is a need to be much more proactive than in the past, having protocols already in place, rather than waiting for something bad to happen and then trying to cope in the midst of the stress of putting on the conference itself.

Incidents can also be quickly and widely shared via social media, often using conference hashtags, which amplifies the need to move quickly with an appropriate response. A harassment incident at a conference should generally be handled onsite while the conference is still happening, for the attendee who has been subjected to harassing conduct to feel safe and participate fully in the proceedings. Reporting parties who do not feel like the conference organizers are taking their safety into account and demonstrating willingness to address the conduct are much more likely to choose to share the information publicly online, if they feel like there is not another viable reporting option.

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