The theory of ethics may have been conceived by Aristotle, but defining what constitutes ethical planning behavior has never been more complex, and the potential impact on a career rarely so dire. Meeting planners have long worked under a code of ethics, but those lines defining ethics are not as clear they were a decade ago.
Repercussions for unintended ethics violations can be as severe as those for willful misconduct. “More and more planners are losing their jobs because of an ethical violation, and usually they were unaware it was a violation,” says Joan L. Eisenstodt, Eisenstodt Associates LLC, Meetings & Hospitality. “There have been so many cutbacks, especially with governmental organizations and their meetings, that scrutiny has intensified about all spending. There is a greater awareness about ethics at all levels.”
A consultant, facilitator and trainer specializing in planner ethical awareness issues, Eisenstodt says that in the 21st century, ethics awareness has exploded throughout the profession. “There is a real anxiety about ethical issues in the hospitality and meetings industry. I have been doing more work on the local level, speaking with and conducting training for state and regional chapters of the national organizations. For corporations, it’s become part of their yearly training, and many do it online where one must take an ethics test at the end.”
All the leading meeting and event planner associations, such as the Convention Industry Council (CIC), MPI and PCMA, have ethics policies — codes of conduct — that outline the proper behavior, explicating what constitutes professionalism. But the rise in planner anxiety over what is ethical behavior in today’s business climate became more evident in 2011, when the CIC implemented the strongest code of ethics and guidelines in the meetings profession. CIC also instituted a system of disciplinary procedures to investigate and enforce this code of ethics.
“The feedback has been generally positive or neutral after we announced our updated ethics policies,” says Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP, who is CEO of the Convention Industry Council. “We see more attention paid to the optics of certain practices like FAM trips, because our industry as well as all businesses, including the government, are under greater scrutiny. As a meeting industry trend, we are hearing more talk about CSR, ethics and good business practice. CIC member organizations have introduced and are enforcing their own codes of conduct or ethics and provide sessions at their annual meetings on the topic.
“We’ve always had policies and procedures that CMPs agree to abide by, and in 2011 we established new oversight to address what happens if they aren’t followed,” says Kotowski.
Kotowski points out that no ethics-related complaints have been received by the CIC, nor was a rising number of ethics violations the motivating factor for putting “teeth” into the code. Instead, the new codes answer the need for stronger and more explicit codes of ethics. “Having a code of professional conduct is a requirement by the National Center for Credibility Assessment (NCCA) for accredited certification programs,” says Kotowski. “While not an NCCA-accredited program, the CMP follows NCCA best practices. A code of ethics is a set of principles and rules used by organizations or individuals to govern their decision-making in choosing between right and wrong. Some may include the recourse or disciplinary process within them. The procedures are available on our website (www.conventionindustry.org) for anyone to view, and it explains who can bring allegations and how.”
The catalyst for renewed emphasis by the profession about ethics seems to have originated outside the meetings industry. “One of the reasons is that there are more ethics crises in the news related to large corporations,” says Elizabeth Henderson, M.E.Des. “Enron and WorldCom were both ethical lapses (of ‘creative accounting’) that brought down the corporation. The global financial collapse in 2008 also spawned events-related incidents, such as the AIG effect, that raised awareness of ethics.”
Henderson is co-author with Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, MBA, of Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility in the Meetings and Events Industry (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2012). She also is the chief sustainability expert for Meeting Change, a meeting consultation company. (McIlwraith is president of Meeting Change).
Henderson points out that since planners interact with individuals from an array of other professions, the unscrupulous behavior of the latter has a guilt-by-association impact on the former. “The ethical lapse here is related to the lack of transparency and the resulting lack of trust involved in the financial collapse. The tie to meetings was that days after receiving a massive federal taxpayer funded bailout, AIG held an expensive incentive trip at a five-star resort costing $443,000. This led to meetings being classified as ‘excessive’ or ‘luxury expenditures.’ This focused attention on the meetings industry and on the ethics of the industry.”
“Ethical issues have received heightened attention based on the economic news in the last few years as well as the increased training in the industry,” agrees Lisa Laubgross, CMP, a meetings industry expert and consultant. “Most certifications include ethics awareness as part of their training as well as signing a document to act in an ethical manner to uphold the designation. Meeting planners should initiate conversations regarding ethics with their upper management/client to discuss best practices and behavior before an issue comes up.”
Even with policies in place, the uniqueness of the planning profession can present sticky issues. “Most ethical areas are gray and dependent on the policies of one’s employer and one’s industry,” says Eisenstodt.
“Surprisingly, many companies and organizations do not have ethics policies, and if they do, do not have specifics for different departments who might face ethical dilemmas. Often these specifics will not cover scenarios that a planner experiences, and I have known of planners who have lost their jobs because they did not understand how their company’s ethical policy related to their jobs as planner.”
Often a corporation’s code of conduct insufficiently addresses realities faced by planners, whose job description can include what appears to be an abundance of perks. “Employees are made aware of ethics at an orientation or in the employee handbook, but that is usually the end of it, until a problem occurs, and it occurs often for planners,” says Eisenstodt.
“Planners are in the position of accepting lunch, dinners, flights, and some of that is part of doing the job. But if that isn’t clear from the beginning, the appearance of a conflict of interest can be career-damaging.”
Ethics experts agree that the most common breach is FAM trip abuse. FAM trips are expense-paid trips to a venue and/or destination to “familiarize” the planner with the meeting setting. For many planners, taking a FAM trip to a destination they have no intention of booking is tantamount to a free vacation, but for the destination, promotion can be paramount. “FAM trips are always being offered, and they really want meeting planners to attend,” says Sharon Marsh, CMP, CMM, meetings group manager, Medtronic Inc. “When I tell them that the destination is not one we will use because of internal corporate policy and/or regulatory guidelines, they still want me to attend as I may change industries in the future. Going on a FAM trip when you know you most probably won’t use the destination/property is like stealing.”
A tarnished reputation, job dismissal and the loss of a CMP credential are the potential consequences of FAM trip abuse. “The suppliers have a responsibility in this unethical behavior,” says Marsh. “They push meeting planners to attend when they are not a properly qualified lead for the FAM. And suppliers continued to invite meeting planners who are known to take advantage of FAM trips over and over again. Suppliers need to say no when a planner asks them for something, such as free rooms, for considering the use of the property.”
Potential for FAM trip abuse exists even on legitimate junkets. “Taking FAM trips, especially where they are staying at multiple hotels, is a major ethical issue with planners,” says Eisenstodt. “Also, if a planner is taking free spa visits or other amenities that she knows will not be used at the meeting being planned, that is an ethical violation. The hotel of course is eager to give away this perk to get the business, but if there is no intention of using it, that’s a problem. I know of a planner fired specifically for this sort of violation.”
A simple spa visit leading to job termination? “A site visit is hard work, all planners know that,” says Eisenstodt. “There’s a lot to investigate and evaluate. But to everybody else in the company, it looks like fun and not work at all. It is very easy for a planner to appear to be abusing the site visit, especially by people who are over them in the company and have never had to go on a site visit. It’s best to err on the side of caution.”
Hotel rewards points are another ethical pitfall planners are now more aware of avoiding. “Most of the time, frequent flyer miles and stayer points in a hotel go to the individual, but not always,” says Eisenstodt. “Those programs have been around long enough for the companies to have developed guidelines. But points of the hotels are often not covered, because they are for room blocks, and (because) only the planner is involved with these vendors, it has to be known who has ownership of the points. It’s probably better to have them be collective for the company and not the individual planner, to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The point policy should also be clearly stated with the hotel, prior to any contract.”
Eisenstodt adds, “That policy must also take into account all possible contingencies: whose points are they; whose names are on the accounts they go into; and what happens to those points if that person is terminated.”
Laubgross warns, “It is not ethical for the staff to accept planner points on an individual basis offered by various chains. Any points accrued had to be used to benefit the group being served by the accumulation of points.”
This is another conflict of interest issue, where the point accumulation by an individual can be seen — regardless of the planner’s actual intentions — as an incentive for selecting one venue over another. This same dilemma becomes magnified when planners utilize a third party when contracting for different components of a meeting.
For some corporate planners, the entire process is implemented in-house by his or her staff, while others contract third-party planners for the event. Employing contractors, however, does not eliminate your ethical responsibilities. “Failure to disclose commission, particularly by a third-party planner, is a problem I see rising more and more,” says McIlwraith.
While mainly with hotel bookings — although other relationships with other vendors can fall into this pattern — third-party planners also will receive a commission for the sale from the hotel, depending on the hotel and the number of hotel rooms utilized. “The planner is the one ultimately responsible and has to answer to employers,” says McIlwraith. “Everything has to be spelled out in the contract, including any commissions paid out or other economic benefits for all participants in the contract.”
Other, newer areas of concern include intellectual property rights and social media, causing ethical, legal and even moral turmoil.
The pressure to make corporate meetings unique and memorable has never been higher. To that end, planners often contract with third-party event organizers, a process that includes reading through proposals. “If the planner then takes the idea as her own, bypassing the third-party planner who submitted the idea to them, that is breach of ethics,” says McIlwraith.
Of course the problem with intellectual property issues is that ideas cannot be copyrighted, only the expression of the idea. The scenario of intellectual property theft from a proposal may not be one where a planner is intentionally unscrupulous. “It is pretty hard to remember where you got an idea from,” says McIlwraith, pointing out that research for an event can include trade publications, websites, industry seminars as well as reviewing new and old RFPs. “Planners have to ask themselves, would you have been able to construct the plan without that plan, and if the answer is no, you have crossed a line.”
While proving intellectual property theft can be one of the most difficult forms of litigation, other career consequences will be more immediate. “Planners are a small community, and it will ruin your reputation, and make getting other jobs harder,” warns McIlwraith.
The use of social media by your meeting attendees is an evolving ethics issue.
“I am especially concerned with the potential impact of social media on ethical behavior,” says Henderson. “While meeting professionals have been very quick to adopt social media, and many classes are taught on how to use it more effectively, I haven’t yet seen a session on what not to do. It is a bit of a Wild West when it comes to social media right now.”
What are the potential ethical breaches of social media? “Many corporations have policies that do not allow people to take and/or post photographs of employees, because this could violate privacy,” says Henderson. “At events, meeting professionals should be notifying people what that policy is so they do not inadvertently contravene it. I suspect that most meeting professionals and their attendees haven’t even considered this issue in depth.”
In addition to violating company policies, social media has a potential for other legal ramifications. “A number of lawsuits have been filed for defamation, related to the use of social media,” says Henderson. “You are responsible for anything, however innocuous you think it might be, that you post on Twitter or a blog and are, in addition, liable for comments on your blogs, moderated or not.”
Today’s ethics controversies can be ambiguous, with possible outcomes far from certain. Says Henderson, “In ethics, perception is reality. If you are believed to have acted unethically, that perception can live on even if you have in reality done nothing unethical.”
Of course, the challenge is getting rid of the gray areas. According to Marsh, if something is questionable or causes even the potential of ethical unease, than the behavior is best avoided. “If I don’t want anyone to know what I have asked for and/or received, then it is probably unethical. I won’t do anything that I am ashamed to let anyone know. This should be the rule we all use.” C&IT