Special Report

Sexual Harassment in the Meetings Industry

Since the business-events industry is female-dominated, you might think sexual harassment isn’t an issue. But a Convene survey — plus interviews with some of the respondents — shows that’s not the case at all.

Photo Credit Mike Reddy/Rusty Elliott/SYLV1ROB1/Adobe Stock

The media firestorm over sexual harassment officially became something like an eternal flame last month when Time magazine published its “Person of the Year” issue. The “person” was a group the magazine called “The Silence Breakers: The Voices That Launched a Movement,” and the cover story shared their experiences. Time’s collection of women (and a few men) who have spoken out about being sexually harassed and assaulted on the job ranged from high-profile actors and TV reporters to hotel front-desk personnel, housekeepers, and dishwashers. There was even a strawberry picker among them.

Time announced its Person of the Year just two short months after The New York Times broke its story investigating the sexual misconduct of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In the weeks following that report, around 40 men in high-level positions in the United States were added to a list of alleged perpetrators. Allegations against them ranged from lewd comments to unwelcome advances to outright sexual assault, and dominated the headlines daily. The men worked in media and film, corporations and government — no industry seemed exempt.

So we wondered: How about business events? Is this too an industry in which people who have been harassed have kept quiet for years, or spoken out only to go unheard? In late November, we put together a short online poll and kept it up for a week to test the waters.

The results were telling. Of the 100 event professionals who responded, 80 percent said that they had experienced some form of on-the-job sexual harassment. Nearly three-quarters of them hadn’t reported the incident or pattern of behavior to human resources or higher-ups at their organizations. They cited a wide variety of reasons for that, from not wanting to make a big deal of the situation, to doubting they would be believed, to fear of retribution and loss of their jobs. 

We’re not suggesting that this survey constitutes a scientific overview of the business-events environment. Yes, you can argue that the people who participated were predisposed because they had experienced some form of harassment themselves, therefore skewing the results. But when you add all the other factors involved — the social nature of conferences and events, the amount of time event professionals spend on the road and in hotels, the fact that the large majority of them are women, and the seeming prevalence of harassment in every other industry that’s come under scrutiny — it’s reasonable to conclude that our survey is holding an accurate mirror up to some portion of the industry.

Indeed, hospitality and food services — which overlaps significantly with the events industry — has the unsettling distinction of leading all other sectors in reported cases of sexual harassment. According to the Center for American Progress, the accommodations and food-services industry accounted for 14 percent of sexual-harassment claims filed in recent years with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for enforcing laws against employment discrimination. No wonder a disproportionate number of women in the Time cover story were from the hotel industry.

Sexual harassment is a fraught issue, so we took extra steps to ensure that respondents to our poll would be anonymous. Several volunteered to speak with Convene about their experiences; we interviewed three, two of whom requested anonymity. Here are their stories.

‘This Probably Happens All the Time’

Kathy (not her real name) has worked as a meeting professional since graduating college 30-plus years ago. Some 20 years ago, she was on a site visit at a hotel with a client, “an older gentleman,” she said. “It was a corporate meeting, and we both got there the day before and were checking out the hotel. His wife was coming the next day to spend the weekend with him, and then I was leaving. So we had dinner together and it was fine. I mean, he was my client. We were chatting and he insisted on walking me to my room, and I naively thought, This is kind of nice. Something my dad would do. Honestly, he was old enough to be my dad.”

Once they got to the door to her room, however, he suddenly pushed himself on her, groping her and trying to get inside. “I pushed him off and got my key in the door and slammed the door and locked it and was like, ‘Oh, my God, what just happened?’” The worst part, Kathy said, was that she had to get up the next morning to meet with him. “He acted like nothing had happened, and then we had to have lunch with his wife. I just thought, This is godawful.”

Once she flew back home, Kathy told her boss what had happened. “And he just blew it off,” she said, “like, ‘Oh, isn’t that funny? Creepy old guy trying to get some.’ At that time it wasn’t even acceptable — at least, I didn’t know it was acceptable — to go to HR. And truthfully, there wasn’t an HR department at the company that I was working with then.”

I really, truly think that there are people out there that think it’s just part of doing business.

Two decades later, the incident still bothers her. “I think the thing that’s the most difficult about it really, even to this day, is that people think it’s acceptable, that this creepy old guy thought it was acceptable to force himself onto someone who is much younger,” Kathy said. “I mean, clearly the man had no conscience. But what I really think is sad is that this probably happens all the time and people blow it off as nothing. But it is something. I feel like because it’s not newsworthy or because it’s not extreme, we discount the fact that it’s in the same family [of abuse and harassment]. I mean, I really, truly think that there are people out there that think it’s just part of doing business.”

Until it’s widely recognized “that this crap is just unacceptable,” Kathy said, it will keep happening. “We need to be aware of it, because I think being aware of it will make people think twice. Hopefully.”

‘This Guy Is Off His Rocker’

“Passionate” is not exactly the word that hospitality sales veteran Jessie (not her real name) wants to use to describe how she feels about the topic of sexual harassment, but it’s something close to that. “I feel strongly about it,” she said. “It’s something I’ve been exposed to quite a bit over the course of my career in different industries, and I’ve been very vocal about it.”

Jessie started out in sales at a major corporation in her early 20s. It wasn’t long after she was hired that the senior management team started telling her she would get more sales if she wore shorter skirts and tighter blouses. “I have very thick skin, very thick,” she said. “Like, nothing really rattles me, up to a point.” But as the comments and pressure continued, along with other kinds of on-the-job harassment, Jessie filed a lawsuit naming the individuals “who were the main players.”

The company settled with her, and she resigned and moved on. She fell into hospitality after that, and several years ago she became part of the pre-opening team for a Chicago hotel, working as the assistant director of sales. She quickly learned that her new boss was a chauvinist, expecting his all-female staff “to follow him around like puppy dogs,” she said. She was able to take it in stride until he started making comments to a coworker of hers, criticizing her weight. Jessie could tell that it made her coworker feel very uncomfortable, but the woman didn’t say anything to him.

So Jessie confronted her boss about it, she said, and “we kind of butt heads a little bit.” But she continued to do her job, until she reached a tipping point. She was in a team meeting and one of the women on the team announced that she was pregnant. “I’m a mom, and a couple of the others were moms,” she said, so they were happy for her. “And this guy says, ‘Well, we’ve got plenty of coat hangers in the hotel. We can take care of that.’

“And I sat there and looked around the table,” Jessie continued, “and I could tell that everybody was like, ‘Did he just say that?’” She immediately went to HR and filed a complaint. “And so my complaint went on file, and they launched an investigation — quote, unquote. And in the interim, [my boss] took everybody for a kind of team outing.”

Off site, once again, he made another vulgar comment about the women on his team. Jessie said she briefly wondered if because they were off property, perhaps the rules didn’t apply. But she thought, If he puts down that corporate AmEx card to pay the bill, then we’re at a work function. He did. So Jessie went back to HR and said, “Okay, I don’t know if it’s because we’re at a pre-opening hotel that you don’t want to do anything about this — because you don’t want to have bad press or whatever — but you need to do something. Because this guy is off his rocker.”

It was after she lodged this second complaint, Jessie said, that the retaliation against her started. “He pretty much did whatever he could to try to get me fired,” she said, including “messing with my numbers, or saying I didn’t do something and writing me up, all this other nonsense.” It got to the point that Jessie decided to address the issue by emailing the CEO of the hotel chain, figuring, “What’s it gonna hurt?” She got no response. Fed up, Jessie found a different job and ended up resigning. Ironically, a week after she resigned, her former boss got fired. “It was discovered he was sleeping with one of the team members,” she said.

Taking Convene‘s survey kind of made my stomach turn.

Even though Jessie followed what she believes are the correct steps to address a sexual-harassment situation and it still wasn’t handled properly, she remains adamant that people need to stand up for themselves and be vocal “at the time of the incident.” Don’t wait, she said. It’s an organization’s job to protect its employees, she said, and if anyone is being harassed, “they have the right to voice it to HR. If they don’t receive any kind of feedback or action item or followup within a certain amount of time, it’s within their right to escalate it without any retaliation or repercussions.”

‘This Happened to Me Instead’

Sara (not her real name) said taking Convene’s harassment survey “kind of made my stomach turn,” stirring up some painful memories. Nonetheless, she offered to tell her story anonymously because, she said, “I do think that it’s a huge issue in our industry.”

Seven years ago, Sara was working as an event planner for a major corporation. She planned the company’s five-day annual conference in collaboration with the company’s head of HR. “He was responsible for this event and making sure that it went off and that we achieved our goals,” Sara said, while she was the point person for the event itself and the logistics. On the final night of the conference, the company threw a big party for the 2,500 employees in attendance. The HR head was celebrating. “He was happy that a year invested in this project was finally concluded,” Sara said, “and he was having a good time with his colleagues and enjoying the band.” But before long, “he was clearly past the point of enjoying himself.”

Following an hour-long meet-and-greet after-party for award winners, C-level executives, and the band in a private area of the hotel, Sara and a few of her colleagues were finishing up. It was around midnight. The guests had gone back to their rooms. The HR director came wandering back in with another colleague “just to kind of check on how things were closing out,” Sara said. “He was stumbling all over the place. Really drunk. And he came over to me. I think he thought that he was congratulating me or saying, ‘Job well done.’ But I don’t think he realized what our relationship was because he was so drunk.” He began touching Sara and wrapping himself around her, “open-mouth kissing me on the neck,” she said, “in front of other people.”

Sara was “super shaken up,” she said. It “just killed the whole experience — a year’s worth of work.” Thinking back, she said that because she was at an early point in her career, she may have just brushed it off as someone being really drunk and not knowing what he was doing. Except that her boss had seen the entire thing and pulled her aside to make sure she was okay. As her supervisor and a witness to the incident, she told Sara she needed to follow policy and report it, which launched a six-week investigation, “because normally those kind of complaints would be filed directly with him” — the HR director.

Her boss’ complaint went to the company’s chief legal counsel. “They couldn’t even touch it,” Sara said, so the board of directors hired an outside company to investigate.

The environments that we create in our industry where people can let loose — sometimes it just lends itself to that.

During that time, Sara tried to look at “both sides of the story,” she said. “I don’t think he wanted to do that. I don’t think he wanted to make me feel that way or do what he did. But the environments that we create in our industry where people can let loose and have a good time and there’s a lot of celebration and a lot of drinking — sometimes it just lends itself to that. He went too far and he did something that he shouldn’t have done and probably didn’t intend to do, because that wasn’t his personality. It’s not like he was the creepy guy around the office that people usually complained about, but I had seen him getting too cuddly with other women before this happened to me, on the same night. I was actually thinking maybe we’re going to have an issue based on that. But this happened to me instead.

“It was awful,” Sara said. “I was pretty disappointed in how it was handled. Our board of directors looked at the scenario and thought it’s going to cause us a lot of headache and a lot of money to replace him and get somebody new in here, so it would just be easier to reprimand him and take some of his bonus away and demote him for a period of time than to lose him. But I feel like that’s the wrong message. It basically said if you’re at a high enough level, your behavior can be excused because your value is more important to the company in the job that you do on a daily basis.”

Sara said she took “a keen interest” in the company’s harassment policy after this happened to her. She looked at the printed handbook that employees had received that year and saw a zero-tolerance policy was clearly spelled out. A few months after her incident, Sara noticed an online update to the policy had “gotten slid in there without a big announcement,” she said. “They took out the part about ‘zero tolerance,’” and replaced it with wording along the lines of “We take these things very seriously and will deal with them on an individual basis.”

Two years later, Sara was forced to work with him again in the same situation, during the same evening event, as if nothing had ever happened. “If he had been dismissed, it would have been somebody new,” she said. “We would have left it in the past.”

Photo Credit Mike Reddy/Rusty Elliott/SYLV1ROB1/Adobe Stock

Learn what to include in an anti-harassment policy for your event at convn.org/harass-event-policy

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

  • Sandy Biback

    Michelle, I’ve quickly read this report-I will read in more detail later. AND I really don’t need to read it in detail-it is all true, every word of it AND yes it is in our industry in fact, it is in every industry. I think you & I had a discussion several years ago about the speaker who asked me to come to his room. And I personally have other incidents that happened to me both inside the industry & outside the industry. Just yesterday, the founder of Soulpepper Theatre here in Toronto resigned because of allegations-that theatre is at my doorstep & we have season tickets & I often see Shultz walking the area. Am I surprised? Sadly no, All too common, men in power & while our biz is predominately female, many in power are male. There will be much more. I think what’s changed is that it isn’t one woman speaking out, it is several coming together about the same person. Thank you for writing this. We must get all this out in the open if we are to change the way society sees women, power, greed, fear and money. And let’s not even go to those countries where women & girls are used as war toys!

  • Judy Kent

    I did read the article. And I read it in detail. YES !! It is all over the place in our industry. BIG TIME !!! And, we need to REALLY bring this to light !! It has been going on for many years and has been very damaging to people’s lives and their careers. My guess is that so many people just move on from the job and statistics support that they seldom report the incident. Why should the person being harassed have to leave a job that they love because of someone abusing their power? I am not certain how we would approach this as an industry but there needs to be a huge focus on this. I am totally game to be part of the solution.