Are You on the Right Side of Ethics?
Let These Meetings Industry Pros — and Your Conscience — Be Your Guide
By Derek Reveron
Every industry faces ethics challenges, and meeting planning certainly is no exception. Something that looks like an incentive can be intended as a bribe. Planners are offered so many things so often that the right thing to do can be confusing, especially for novices.
Experts say several factors contribute to ethical lapses and quandaries including: not enough ethics education opportunities; industry guidelines are unclear about specific, ethically ambiguous situations; some planners, particularly those who are independent, have tighter budgets and may count on FAM trips, frequent flyer miles, hotel-stay points and other perks to defray expenses.
No wonder planners face ethics challenges as a routine part of their jobs.
According to Joan Eisenstodt, founder of Washington, DC-based Eisenstodt Associates LLC, a meetings consulting and training firm focusing on ethics issues, “I think our industry is far less ethical than it ever was because of high turnover, the complicity of vendors, younger and newer people who aren’t members of industry organizations, and because many people believe they are underpaid and overworked and are ‘due’ the perks offered.”
Sometimes the right ethical choice is clear, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the decision is ethically correct but gives the appearance of being unethical or at least inappropriate.
Eisenstodt believes that more ethics education is needed to make planners aware of potential issues, especially those that fall into gray areas. “We need far more education now than ever,” she says. “I think ethics needs to be on the agenda of every industry organization at every national, international and chapter meeting. If a national organization or chapter does one ethics program every few years, they believe it is okay.”
Karen Kotowski, CEO of the Events Industry Council (EIC), offers a different assessment. “I think we do a fairly good job, particularly for the CMP community,” she says. “Our Events Industry Council Manual 9th Edition is the primary study resource (for the EIC’s CMP certification) and covers professionalism, ethical behavior, best practices, and how to develop and implement a code of ethics for your own organization.”
The EIC has an enforceable CMP Code of Ethics, which says that planners shouldn’t use their “position for undue personal gain and to promptly disclose to appropriate parties all potential and actual conflicts of interest.” In addition, the code says planners should “actively model and encourage the integration of ethics into all aspects of the performance of my duties.”
Questions about the EIC standards are included on the organization’s CMP exam. According to Kotowski, “CMPs are required to read and agree to abide by the CMP Standards of Ethical Conduct on their initial certification application, as well as every time they recertify.”
The EIC can remove certification from planners who violate the standards. “The process ensures a CMP receives due process and the procedures are consistently enforced if a complaint is made,” says Kotowski.
Kotowski adds that the most frequent violations involve people who use the CMP designation after they fail to recertify. “A more infrequent, but equally serious occurrence, has been occasions where someone uses the credential who never earned it,” says Kotowski. “We can’t ensure ethical behavior. We can encourage, educate and enforce it if need be.”
The Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) has its Principles of Professional and Ethical Conduct, which asks members to “avoid any and all conflicts of interest and advise all parties, including my organization, of any situations where a conflict of interest exists.”
The PCMA principles also ask professionals to “refuse inappropriate gifts, incentives and/or services in any business dealings that may be offered as a result of my position and could be perceived as personal gain.”
Some industry ethics experts say that industry standards provide general guidelines but aren’t uniform, are infrequently enforced and don’t cover many specific ethics challenges that planners commonly face.
According to Christy Lamagna, CMP, CMM, CTSM, CEO and master strategist at Bernardsville, New Jersey-based Strategic Meetings & Events, “If the industry were more strategic in how we planned and came together to form unilateral goals, standards and practices, we would be seen differently, treated differently, and better behavior on all sides would result.”
Knowing Ethics Codes
But many planners aren’t familiar with industry standards. According to Eisenstodt, “I think if you asked members of the various industry organizations when they last read the code for the organization for which they are a member or hold a certification, you’d find that few have.”
Unfamiliarity with ethics standards is especially common among numerous people who plan meetings but aren’t trained planners. “I think that the gap in awareness, if any exists, may be with those non-professional/part-time planners who are asked to plan a meeting, but it is not their day-to-day job,” says Kotowski.
Kotowski believes that untrained, part-time planners are even less aware than professional planners of potential ethical pitfalls. “I would urge those non-full-time planners to use our EIC manual as a desk reference for these practices and to become more professional in performing these activities that may not be their full-time job,” says Kotowski.
Lamagna agrees: “Those who plan meetings aside from their full-time responsibilities often make the wrong decisions as they are not exposed to guidelines and ethics codes. The bigger problem is that the industry is too segmented. If we had a universal platform to stand on or required a licensing procedure for this role, then we’d eliminate enormous amounts of unethical behavior.”
It’s also difficult to curb unethical behavior because suppliers and vendors may have inadequate ethics standards or none at all. Suppliers may not be clear to planners up front about the intention of their perks and gifts.
According to Eisenstodt, “The piece of this that is not addressed is whether the vendor or supplier is complicit in any unethical behavior and, if so, how should it be addressed. Having seen clients fire planners who violated ethics codes with the complicity of vendors, and seeing the vendors continue working for their companies, means we have no real standards across the industry.”
Knotty ethics issues can result from FAM trips — expense-paid trips that hotels, venues and CVBs offer planners to acquaint them with properties and destinations.
Some planners accept FAM trips with no intention of ever considering the destination for a meeting. That’s not ethical, says Lamagna. “If you know your client base will never go to a destination, don’t accept the invite. These trips cost money and are investments in future business. Be respectful of that. If you don’t have business to share at that moment, but believe you may in the future, then consider going,” says Lamagna.
How can planners who want to do the right thing ensure that personal biases don’t influence their recommendations?
Lamagna offers the following advice: “I always repeat the mantra, ‘it’s not about me’ with every component of a program from menus to gifts, flowers or wine selection. I remind myself that I am not the audience. I base my recommendations on the group’s goals for the meeting, personality of executives and guests, budget, tolerance for travel, etc.”
While FAM trips are a problem, some experts believe that other ethical problems are more common.
Perks and Gifts
Says Eisenstodt: “I think FAM trips are the least of our concerns. They happen less frequently. I think the issue of prizes at trade shows/hosted buyer events and even the hosted buyer events themselves are of far greater concern as are the gifts given, the undisclosed commissions, the hidden fees and so much more.”
Indeed, many ethical issues stem from perks, rewards, points and gifts offered to planners or that they rarely request. Suppliers such as hotels and venues as well as CVBs bombard planners with perks such as hotel nights, airfare points, spa treatments, five-star dinners, limo rides, tickets to sporting events and concerts, and trips for family and friends.
It can be difficult for planners, especially novices, to decide when it’s ethical to accept freebies. A perk may also be a bribe, or at least give the appearance of one.
Organizations, corporations and event stakeholders know that planners are offered perks. Still, not revealing the acceptance of the gifts could be unethical if the offerings favorably impact a planner’s recommendation or decision about a property or destination. Even if a reward doesn’t influence the decision, non-disclosure could give the appearance of being unethical if the perk is revealed later.
Lamagna offers the following advice for dealing with perks, points, rewards and gifts. “We give any gifts we receive to the client,” she says. “For instance, a property awarded us a watch after the event. We had them send it to our client’s CEO. If you are upfront with the client and they are okay with you accepting points, use them as a perk for employees.”
Many planners perceive some perks as gray areas. Here are two examples:
A hotel, vendor or other supplier offers an expensive dinner at a swanky restaurant: “Five-star dinners should not be the norm,” says Lamagna. “That said, if a relationship has developed with a vendor who takes you out to celebrate or as a thank you, and you can separate that from ‘owing’ them something in the form of business in the future, then that may be okay. Nothing should ever be expected, done in excess or abused.”
A hotel offers a room upgrade: “Accepting upgrades while on a site visit is not unethical but it is inappropriate,” says Lamagna. “Upgrades offered onsite during a program should also be declined because the meeting is not about you. You are staff, not a guest. We put into our preshow notes that no one from our team is ever to be upgraded so there is a clear path for everyone to follow.”
Should a planner who has accepted points and perks not recommend the hotel even if it is a good match for the meeting? Why? “When you have to start asking yourself these questions you are blurring a line,” says Lamagna. “Focus on the client’s goals and best interests, and be transparent in your behavior. That eliminates most challenges.”
Eisenstodt agrees that transparency is the best course. “Destination, venue and vendor salespeople have quotas to make, and we all have been begged to get contracts signed,” says Eisenstodt. “We have an obligation to know and disclose the criteria on which we base decisions. Discussing with an internal or external stakeholder the selection criteria means that one can be more objective, and show the objectivity in the decision-making.”
The need for ethical behavior among meeting planners grows as more join the events industry. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of meeting and convention planners will continue to grow 16 percent through 2018 — faster than the average for all occupations.
Planners can take the following steps to increase awareness about ethics:
- Experienced planners should serve as ethics mentors to new planners, and newcomers should seek advice from experienced peers.
- Talk to a boss or coworker about a situation when the course of action isn’t clear.
- Put the best interests of stakeholders and clients first.
- Be aware of how actions might be perceived and interpreted even if they are technically ethical.
- Planners facing an ethical dilemma should ask themselves how they would feel if their actions were posted on social media.
- Corporations that lack their own codes of ethics should create such standards.
Corporate Ethics Codes
According to Eisenstodt, “Most corporations, if not all, have codes of conduct/ethics. Of the corporate planners I know, all have said they are asked once a year to do an online evaluation of ethics issues. I have helped clients write specifics, using their overall codes, for their meetings departments so that individuals knew, for example, the value of gifts or meals or entertainment they could accept.”
Kotowski offers advice on what the corporate codes should cover. “It would include their own specific practices and standards regarding how they interact with their clients and conduct their business,” says Kotowski.
The codes also would cover company-specific “financial practices, how they report their activities to the client, transparency in billing practices and expectation of employee interactions with vendors and suppliers,” says Kotowski.
Hold Peers Accountable
Planners should know and abide by ethics codes and hold their peers accountable for doing the same. Suppose a corporate planner finds out that a peer within the same company has acted unethically. What steps should the planner take?
Eisenstodt offers the following advice: “It is generally thought that one should approach (not report) the person thought to have acted unethically based on the company’s code and say something like, ‘I think you did X and it seems like it might be in opposition to the company’s code of conduct in section Y,” says Eisenstodt. “Please tell me a bit more so I can understand how to apply the code to my own work.”
Eisenstodt advises that planners talk to human resources when in doubt about what to do, or use the company’s anonymous reporting system. “Use what works best and most comfortably for you. If the person believed to have acted unethically holds a certification, determine what you need to do and how to report the information to (the certifying organization). Do that only when certain of the information.”
According to Lamagna, corporate planners have a duty to report ethics violations. “There is no middle ground with ethics,” says Lamagna. “Once you know something is happening that is unethical, it is incumbent on you to share the information. If you are unsure and it is not your responsibility to follow up, share the concern, not an accusation, with the appropriate person and then step aside.”
The right ethical decision isn’t always clear, and planners may see the same situations differently. However, it’s crucial that planners approach issues with a knowledge of ethics standards and a willingness to make the best efforts to apply them.