Friday, November 27

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

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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.

What kind of risks do conference organizers face, and are those any different for academe than for other professional organizations?

Some individuals, when traveling to attend a professional conference, do not seem to think the usual standards of professional conduct apply. Or they may never have thought that the rules apply to them, due to their power and status. From catcalls and inappropriate comments made by speakers from the podium, to sexual comments and propositions between attendees, to stalking, groping and physical assault — many forms of unprofessional and illegal conduct can happen on site at conferences among individuals who rarely have the opportunity to interact otherwise. Social events involving alcohol can also play a significant role at some conferences as part of the organization’s culture, especially at networking events where attendees looking to make connections and advance their career may feel compelled to tolerate behavior that makes them uncomfortable. The availability of private hotel rooms away from colleagues and family can increase the likelihood of sexual misconduct, up to and including sexual assault and rape.

Academic conferences face a special risk due to the power imbalance among attendees, between tenured faculty engaged in high-profile research, and graduate students looking for work that will make or break their careers. There is a long history of senior faculty leveraging that power imbalance to their advantage, not just relating to sexual harassment, but other forms of bullying and abusive conduct. Those interactions at professional conferences are fraught with consequences which can have a lasting impact on the career path, reputation and morale of individuals who are targeted for that inappropriate conduct, making some attendees feel the conference is an unsafe environment in which to interact with other professionals and to build their professional network.

How has the shift to a more preventative approach changed the approach to issues of harassment and discrimination?

There is an increasing recognition that if you have to wait until harassment and discrimination actually happen before you do anything about it, that can cause significant harm not only for the person who is targeted, but for others around them, and for the sponsoring entity itself. While the approach to these incidents historically has been one focused on liability: i.e., wait until an incident happens and then let the lawyers hash it out, many recognize that this is not the optimal approach, especially for organizations whose values are strongly opposed to gender, racial, and other forms of inequality.

Professional organizations have the opportunity to live their values by adopting preventative approaches, making clear that they do not tolerate conduct that is not consistent with their values and which stigmatize certain members of their profession. By communicating this message, they are likely to attract a more diverse audience, both among conference attendees and in higher levels of organizational participation such as organizational leadership and committee involvement. Less time is spent responding to crises and more time is spent doing the substantive work of the organization, while at the same time, participants know that inappropriate conduct is being appropriately addressed rather than left to fester and cause even more problems at a later time.

What are the key elements of a typical code of conduct?

Codes of conduct are created to provide for a safe and welcoming environment within the professional association or other organization. Some focus on just the organization’s meetings and interactions between meeting participants, while others apply more broadly within the organization to any interaction facilitated in an organizational capacity or as professional ethical standards more generally applicable to any member of the organization. Typically, codes of conduct contain the following elements:

  • definitions of prohibited conduct
  • definitions of the community of individuals to whom the code of conduct applies
  • procedures for enforcing the code of conduct
  • consequences for when a violation is found
  • limitations on the code of conduct’s enforcement

It is critical to widely publicize the code of conduct‘s existence, by requiring meeting attendees to agree to the code during registration, including the code within the conference program materials, on signage, on the conference app, and any other location where attendees look for conference-related information. It is also helpful to have organization leadership mention the code in their introductory remarks kicking off the conference, and include it in the information given to speakers and moderators, so that they can use it to immediately address any problems that arise in their sessions.

What types of training do you provide in advance of and during meetings?

In advance of meetings, organization staff and leadership can be trained on the following issues related to code of conduct enforcement:  how to recognize and identify harassment; what are the particular risks presented within their organization; how to intervene when you see harassment, and how to intervene when harassment or other code violations are reported. The best training is interactive, involving role play which prepares participants for the most common and likely scenarios they will encounter. It can also be highly customized for a particular organization with very concrete details about policies, processes, and procedures to ensure everyone is prepared to fully and consistently enforce the organization’s code of conduct.

Some organizations offer trainings at the conference itself as part of first-time attendee orientation or as a stand-alone session for those who are interested. If an organization has its own staff involved in accepting and responding to reports of harassment and code violations, then it is essential they be trained, if not in advance, then onsite before they begin to accept reports. For organizations that have board meetings or bring together key leadership at their meetings, a training of those individuals while onsite may be appropriate. Some organizations have also developed volunteer programs for individuals who wish to be designated as allies, and who wear a button or other identification to indicate that they have a particular interest in providing support to marginalized communities and/or those experiencing problems at the conference itself. Ally training teaches those volunteers how to best support the work of outside ombuds staff and/or conference staff involved in code of conduct enforcement, including what resources are available and how the code of conduct protects participants.

The best training will not only provide specific guidance for handling conflicts that arise on site but will impart helpful information that can be used year-round in participants’ home institutions.

Anything else you want to share with higher ed leaders?

Even if you have never had an incident reported at prior meetings does not mean that your organization does not have a problem: the problem may be that members know there’s not a feasible way to report and ensure that problems are addressed in a non-retaliatory and effective manner.

You don’t have to go this alone or reinvent the wheel. While our current climate demands that you take appropriate proactive action around these issues to best protect your conference attendees and your organization’s reputation, you don’t have to become an overnight expert in these issues in order to be effective. Professionals like myself and my colleagues who provide code of conduct enforcement and meeting safety services are here to help you think about all the things that could happen and to help you think about how to prevent them, in accordance with the values of your organization and your profession. Don’t wait until something bad happens to respond, and don’t make the mistakes that countless others have made when responding from a defensive posture. A plan to specifically address these issues must now be a non-negotiable, essential part of your meeting budgets and built into your organizational governance.


About the author

Dr. Terri E. Givens is the Founder and CEO of The Center for Higher Education Leadership (CHEL). She was the former Provost at Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay Area; Professor of Government and European studies at The University of Texas at Austin; Vice Provost overseeing undergraduate curriculum and spearheading global initiatives as its chief international officer. She formed CHEL to provide academic leaders with information and a supportive community for improving management and leadership skills in an environment of changing demographics, financial challenges, and advances in educational technology. CHEL was born of Terri’s experiences navigating these fields and learning along her journey through academe, from professor to vice-provost and provost at universities in Texas and California.

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