You see a colleague booking the same property meeting after meeting. He says this particular resort is absolutely the best destination for each of these meetings, and that it always provides the best value for the company. The hotel appreciates his business and rewards him with a lot of points — ultimately enough so that he and his family get a sweet weeklong vacation out of it.
Is this unethical? Is there something you should do about it?
Planners, perhaps especially those in the highly regulated and highly scrutinized insurance and financial industries, are likely to face multiple ethical dilemmas as they go through their careers, and at some point to see questionable ethics exhibited by colleagues, managers or even C-suite executives.
“Meeting professionals in the financial and insurance arena are under perhaps more scrutiny because of the nature of what their companies do, serving as fiduciaries and stewards of other peoples’ money.”
— Steve Bova
How a planner handles these situations, and how unwavering his or her own moral compass is, makes all the difference. We asked a number of planners and industry insiders what they think. Here’s what they said.
Steve Bova, executive director of FICP, the membership organization for financial and insurance conference planners, puts it this way: “The issue is not the potential ethical pitfalls that we face, as everyone faces a variety of challenges, pitfalls or temptations every day. It’s more a question of how one chooses to respond or not respond that matters. At the end of the day, we are all accountable for the choices we make through our behaviors and actions.”
Bova adds that meeting professionals have ethics to consider on more than one front. “They have their company’s business ethics to be mindful of, as well as their personal reputations and the expectations of those who work in the meetings and events profession,” he says. “Table stakes include being professional, being honest and truthful, and using good judgment — not some of the time or most of the time but all of the time. Every one of us is constantly being evaluated on our behavior and the outcomes of the actions and reactions our behaviors cause. Meeting professionals in the financial and insurance arena are under perhaps more scrutiny because of the nature of what their companies do, serving as fiduciaries and stewards of other peoples’ money.”
Bova notes that companies in these industries also “need to be cautious about the optics created by the meetings and events they produce and must be prepared to justify the business rationale for every element of each meeting.”
Wayne W. Robinson, CMP, CMM, assistant vice president with Rhode Island-based FM Global, agrees, pointing out that there is often a perception problem rather than a true ethical problem related to meetings in the insurance and financial arenas.
“We have so many safeguards in place both internally and externally that I don’t think it’s as much of an ethical issue as it is an issue of perception,” he says. “Both publicly and privately held companies in the insurance and financial space still battle over the issue of perception when it comes to some incentive-based meetings as well as business meetings in general. I think we are charged with exceeding expectations and staying on the cusp of new and different while being very cautious to take into consideration world events and perception of spend at the same time. Not easy.”
When it comes to ethical behavior, however, Bova believes there are no gray areas. “Either you are or you aren’t. You aren’t kinda-sorta ethical, or mostly ethical but with a few lapses. As humans,” he says, “we have a sense of what’s right and wrong by the time we are eight years old. If we knew the difference between right and wrong when we were eight, we certainly know when we are crossing the lines as adults. The trouble comes when there is no right vs. wrong and people need to choose between right and right.”
Bova recommends the book Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose between Right and Right (Harvard Business Review Press, 1997) by Joseph L. Badaracco Jr.
“Consider this scenario,” he says. “You’re standing in front of a burning building. You realize that you can run to one part of the building and save a single child, or you can run to another part and save three children. In neither case is there any risk to you. But there is no way to save everyone. Now consider if one of those children is your son or daughter. This may not be an ethical dilemma, but I bring it up to illustrate that how we respond every day is not always a matter of right versus wrong, or what is ethically right. It’s not always that easy.”
Of course, most of the decisions we make in our everyday work lives do not involve life and death. But Bova’s point is a valid one: Our challenges, and our responses to them, may not always be so straightforward.
Most planners agree that complimentary site visits and FAMs play a crucial role in planners being able to make accurate decisions about properties and destinations on behalf of their company or clients. But these trips do pose ethical questions if planners are not attending them for the right reasons.
“We have to be vigilant when it comes to the standard FAM trips and gifts,” says Robinson. “We are all beholden to a code of conduct that defines ethical behavior within our companies. Even though it’s imperative that we stay on top of current destinations and experiences, we have to always ask ourselves, ‘Is this in the best interest of my company regardless of the opportunities that present themselves?’ Not always black and white, as the saying goes.”
Robinson says if planners are unsure whether it’s okay to accept a comp trip or attend a FAM, or under what circumstances they can do so, they should ask their boss. “Don’t assume just because we plan meetings and events for a living that it’s automatically acceptable without an explanation,” he notes. “Also be honest with yourself as well as with the sponsor of the FAM or site inspection. Is this a destination you will use? If so, is it a property you would consider?
“Remember the purpose of FAMs and comped site inspections is to generate business for the destination/resort. It’s not just for planners to have a good time. This could be an opportunity for potential business for your hospitality partners elsewhere if we have that honest conversation up front,” he says.
Chip L. (not his real name), a meeting planner with a global insurance company, says FAMs and sites are important, but that remaining impartial and “uninfluenced” when it comes to them is critical. “With 20 plus years in the industry, I feel it is very important to know if a potential property and destination will be a good choice for your event. In this respect, FAMs and sites are crucial. As your company’s planner, you must speak with knowledge and experience when advising senior management and decision-makers. You represent that company, and how you present yourself and what you ‘take’ and take advantage of weighs heavy in the industry. There is a tremendous push and pull between hoteliers and planners,” he notes.
“Hoteliers want your business; you represent revenue and partnership to them. This can put you in a very powerful position in reaping the benefits and kindness of hoteliers and venues. However, you also represent integrity and, in my mind, morality. You should be conducting yourself in a professional manner at all times and not be taking advantage of a hotelier’s or venue’s hospitality. The whole point of a FAM,” he says, “is to familiarize yourself with a property and/or location. If you are continually going on FAM trips to the same location or to a destination you know your company is not going to approve, you are taking advantage.”
In addition to going only on FAMs and site visits that are truly appropriate for your work and your company, Chip says planners can put transparency and hard work front and center when they go on these trips.
“When I’m looking at a possible venue to book. I try to remain transparent with all the hotels. When they ask what are the ‘hot buttons,’ I respond in the voice of my company, not in a way that would benefit me personally,” he says. “And I try to maximize my time when traveling to a destination. I’ll plan to see more than one property a day. I don’t think you need to spend the night at each hotel to know a hotel. It’s like being in an ice cream store; there are many flavors to choose from and it’s nice to take a little taste and narrow down your choices.”
He tries to stay and eat only at properties he knows his company is likely to contract with. “I do not ask for a comp night but rather for the best rate available. This is fair. And I never site over a weekend if at all possible, as this most certainly will be seen as taking advantage. Plus,” he points out, “you need to respect the sales staff’s time as well. They will not appreciate having to site over a weekend. Most companies I have worked for would not allow this conduct as it’s likely to be misconstrued.”
To his fellow planners Chip says, “There are many people out there who want your revenue. Do not become easily influenced by ‘golden dangling carrots.’ Remember, you are representing a company; this is not for your personal benefit. Be respectful and honest in your negotiations.”
Bova echoes many of the same beliefs. “On the one hand, the job of a meetings professional is to know the various types of properties and venues that have the potential of serving a purpose for their company in the future. Sometimes,” he says, “this means experiencing the product. There is an added benefit when a personal relationship is developed between the planner and hospitality provider. On the other hand, it is not considered ethical for a meeting professional to attend a FAM or site inspection if they have no intention of booking a meeting at the property or with the company, or if the kind of business they represent does not fit. Additionally, if attending for business purposes only, I question the need to bring spouses or significant others. If it feels even a little uncomfortable,” he concludes, “you already have your answer.”
What of our example at the start of this article? Meeting planning points offered by hotel groups may be the quintessential double-edged sword. While a strong relationship between hotels and planners can be a benefit when it comes to negotiating contracts, there also can be abuse if planners or others make decisions based on getting more points vs. doing the best for the meeting and the company.
“Meeting planning points are a wonderful way to say thank you for a planner’s partnership with a hotel or venue in negotiating a mutually agreeable contract,” Chip says. “But they can be abused through the number of points awarded. Points should be a nice gesture, not a ‘finance your spring break vacation’ thank you.” In one case Chip is aware of, an individual continues to influence upper management that a “certain chain/hotel had the best contract, venues, etc., which continues to benefit her personally” — an illustration of why there must be checks and balances on both sides, Chip says. “There should always be more than one person checking a contract and making sure the company is seeing it in the best light.”
Some would argue the morality of accepting points in exchange for doing one’s job — especially if those points are used for personal reasons and do not benefit the company.
Airline upgrades are another area of potential abuse. “A boss,” Chip notes, “is typically responsible for negotiating contracts with certain airlines. The airlines, as part of the contract, offer status upgrades for frequent travelers within the company, and that boss is in charge of which employees receive these.” Abuses occur when favoritism influences who gets the upgrades — or the boss takes the advantage for him or herself.
Deciding what to do when such situations arise is yet another ethical dilemma for planners and also a decision that could affect their livelihood and ability to remain employed. Chip’s company has an ethics hotline, which allows employees to remain anonymous in reporting questionable dealings. In addition, most companies have a Code of Ethics statement that outlines standards of conduct and practices where there may be a risk of improper activities.
Robinson cautions planners to look at each issue on a case-by-case basis. “No question it needs to be addressed,” he says, “however, we as planners may not be in a position to address it, depending on the person in question. For example, it’s perfectly fine to pull a colleague to the side, but it may not be appropriate to approach someone in a position of leadership within your company. Again, this is a perfect opportunity to ask for guidance from your manager. Nobody expects us to have all the answers.”
He also recommends “finding a tenured mentor within our industry on the planner side. I guarantee you they’ve either faced the same or similar challenges or they may know someone who can provide guidance or at the very least become a resource for you. Remember: It’s an honor when someone asks for your help.”
On the other side of the equation, Bova says, “Maybe younger planners can teach some long-timers a thing or two because they have not been exposed to some of the temptations that arise.”
In the end, when faced with having to choose how to act or respond to a temptation, planners must ask themselves if a particular action is worth it.
“I have seen a number of times when very respected people with long and distinguished careers exit in a very bad way with tarnished reputations because they made one ethical breach or poor decision,” Bova says. “One can spend an entire career building a brand and a lifetime of work can be diminished by one wrong act. It’s a shame, because at the end of the day all we have is our reputation. Is it really worth it to cross the line?
“If you have a problem deciding,” he says, “ask an eight-year-old!” I&FMM