by Hunter R. Slaton
From the Professional Convention Management Association website
What is ethical behavior for meeting professionals?
How do you know? And how can you and your organization stick to the straight and narrow? We use a new Convene survey as the starting point for a comprehensive look at ethics in the meetings industry.
This past summer, Convene invited readers and PCMA members to participate in a short online survey on the subject of ethics. The response we received took us by surprise. Approximately 630 meeting professionals answered each of 10 questions - and left pages upon pages of comments regarding how and why they think the meetings industry does or does not operate in an ethical manner, and whether there is room for reform.
In short, we touched a nerve. But why? And why now, with the many pressing issues that meeting professionals face on a daily basis, especially the still-uncertain economy? To find out - and to explore the greater topic of ethics - we spoke with planners, suppliers, educators, and thinkers from both inside and outside the industry.
The Perception's the Thing
At the heart of the issue is the question of perception. Our survey was inspired by a discussion among the Convene Task Force - a volunteer group of planners and suppliers who help guide the magazine's editorial direction - at the PCMA Education Conference this past June. Task Force members felt that there are a lot of people in the meetings industry who are unethical and abuse the system. They were particularly bothered by the story of an industry professional who admitted that he added "CMP" after his name without having actually earned the Certified Meeting Professional designation. He knew it carried respect in the industry, it seems, but he personally didn't think it was worth the investment of his time to get one.
For Task Force Chair Anne O'Neill, CMP, CAE, an account manager for Denver-based The Meeting Edge, ethics is of particular concern because she thinks that some clients might be confused as to how meeting planners get paid. "Some people might think that the way we get paid ... might give us a horse in this race" - that is, a personal financial interest in which destination or venue is chosen for a particular meeting, O'Neill said. "Personally I don't think it's true, but I think the perception might be out there."
Thanks in no small part to the AIG Effect, perception has been of particular concern to the meetings industry for the last two years. Indeed, 60 percent of respondents to Convene's survey said that when someone in the meetings industry behaves unethically, it reflects poorly on the entire profession. One respondent, Sean Kirklen, CMP, manager of educational conference services for the University of California, San Francisco's Office of Continuing Medical Education (CME), said that a discussion about ethics was already under way among the six planners who work in his office when the survey landed in his e-mail inbox. Kirklen agrees with O'Neill that the groundswell of interest in ethics could be due to market forces. "With the economy the way it is," he said, "[suppliers] are a lot freer with what they are willing to offer." As a result, Kirklen and his team have taken special care to reinforce their internal ethics guidelines.
Tyra Hilliard, Ph.D., J.D., CMP, a lawyer and associate professor of meetings management at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, has a broader explanation for the apparent rise to prominence of professional ethics. She thinks that over the last decade, the issue has become more prevalent within U.S. culture as a whole - not just the meetings industry. "It's really been building since Enron, MCI/WorldCom, all of those kinds of things in business - and now the word 'transparency' is no longer a buzzword, but a standard part of the business vernacular," Hilliard said. "I think to some extent it's just our response to greater trends within the business world."
One of those trends has been toward increased complexity - which, according to Deborah Breiter, chair of the event management department at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management, has encouraged more stringent ethical guidelines than in the past. Years ago, when Breiter was a convention services manager, it wasn't uncommon to receive some sort of tip or gift from a client at the close of a successful meeting. At the time, she said, it seemed like a "wonderful way" for a customer to say thanks for a job well done. "But that was ... a long time ago," Breiter said. "As this business has progressed from contracts or agreements being written on cocktail napkins to 20-, 30-page documents, people have gotten more aware of things that might be ethically questionable."
It's Getting Better All the Time?
Given that the meetings industry has grown in complexity along with the rest of the business world, has there been a corresponding rise in ethical behavior? Or has increased complexity merely provided more opportunities for planners to be led astray? Simply put, do meeting professionals practice good ethics today?
"That's a hard sort of generalization, but I would have to say - if I had to give a yes-or-no answer - no," Hilliard said. Some of that is a result of ignorance (not knowing what is and isn't ethical), some is temptation from suppliers, and some is simple human weakness. "It always amazes me," Hilliard said, "when ... I see people that I think should know better ... say, 'Oh yeah, I would take that' or 'I think that's a perfectly appropriate gift - I put in 80 hours a week, so I think it's perfectly acceptable that I allow the hotel to upgrade me to a suite and extend it over the following weekend so my husband can stay and we can have a free vacation.'" To wit, in the comments portion of our survey, one respondent wrote: "This is a time-consuming, detail-oriented profession and we need SOME perks."
Nevertheless, Hilliard believes that professional behavior within the meetings industry is more ethical than it was 20 years ago - although there's room for improvement. Her assessment tracks with our survey results: 61.4 percent of respondents said that the meetings industry "operates ethically on balance, but there is still room for reform."
What about younger meeting professionals, and students majoring in hospitality or event management? How are their ethics? Although Breiter takes care to qualify her response by saying that this is a "very hard" question and that she could be wrong, she theorizes that tomorrow's planners may be desensitized to unethical behavior simply as a result of seeing so much of it all around them. "Whether it's a celebrity who's doing something they shouldn't be doing, or a sports figure who's been taking performance-enhancing drugs, or a politician who's been cheating on his wife, or bankers running the mortgage business with sleight of hand - maybe sometimes [students] don't get that there are real ethical issues," Breiter says. "[Maybe] they just think that's the way the world works."
Hilliard sees it somewhat differently. "I'm actually fairly impressed with this generation of students," she said. "I asked the students, ... 'Is it okay to stab someone in the back to move up?' and they looked at me shocked that I would even suggest that. It made me think that they are a little more astute than others - that they might really get it."
But what is the "it" to get? What are the ethical flashpoints within the meetings industry? What practices might be considered questionable? The answer depends on whom you ask - which is one of the difficulties when discussing the subject: What's perfectly acceptable to one planner might be considered beyond the pale by another.
Fam trips. That said, in the comments left by respondents to our ethics survey, fam trips and site inspections were consistently singled out as potentially dicey. Two questions on the survey dealt directly with these areas:
> When is it ethical for suppliers to issue and for planners to accept invitations to events?
> On a site visit, is it ethical for a planner to ...
* Have the entire stay (including room and meals) comped?
* Accept complimentary in-room amenities (such as wine, fruit, etc.), spa treatments, and/or golf?
* Pay for the stay and amenities and, if you book the venue or destination, have that amount taken off your master account?
Sixty-seven percent of respondents answered the first question by saying it was ethical to accept an invitation when there is "business on the table." Just under a quarter said it was ethical to do so "when you know the person, even if there is no business pending." Less than 6 percent believe that it is never ethical to accept (or issue) such an invitation. For the second question, a little less than two-thirds said it was ethical to have the entire stay comped (2.7 percent fewer said it was okay to accept free amenities). Just under a third replied that one should pay for one's own stay and amenities. Fewer than 10 percent of respondents said it was unethical to accept anything while on a site visit.
"I think there's more scrutiny on both [the planner and supplier] sides," Breiter said. "I think the hotels, convention centers, conference centers, whatever it may be ... are a little more concerned with appearing to be trying to buy somebody's business. On the other side, my boss ... doesn't want me getting gifts and sullying the waters about what is the best [destination, site, or facility] for my event. Let's not muddy the waters by somebody giving you a gift and trying to buy you."
More often than not, whether a practice can be considered ethical is a fine distinction. Breiter offers the example of a single bottle of wine being given to her during a site visit, as opposed to a case of wine being sent to her office. Which, if either, is acceptable? Possibly the bottle of wine, but almost certainly not the case. "Sometimes the lines are razor-thin," Breiter said, "and sometimes the lines are big and bold."
Kirklen raises another distinction. "If it's a legitimate piece of business, [a fam trip is] warranted - I mean, obviously you want to get a feel for the location," he said. "It's just a matter of how much is warranted, and ensuring you're using your moral compass." For example, Kirklen thinks that a one-day site visit to a location makes perfect sense, whereas a three-day site visit "obviously would not."
Some suppliers have tried to make the decision of whether to participate in a fam trip easier for planners by emphasizing the event's educational elements and downplaying or eliminating activities that might be seen as flashy, luxurious, or excessive. "When they're here [on a fam trip], it's really educational," said Rob Osterberg, director of sales for the Palm Springs Desert Resort Communities Convention and Visitors Authority. "Certainly we are showing them the various resorts ... and the various venues and things of interest out here, but we'll also have the airport do an educational component to our fams, so it's not a boondoggle."
Osterberg added: "I think it's unfair that some who don't understand our industry, or don't ask the questions about what this program is about or how it works, just kind of have a preset notion of what it's about - and it's incorrect. More so than ever, planners' time is very limited, and when they are doing something, they want to get something out of it."
Reward points. Another bone of contention has to do with hotel points and frequent-flier miles. Our survey asked, "Is it ethical for planners to keep the points (from airlines, hotels, etc.) that they accumulate through their professional work?" More than 71 percent said that it was - 6 percent more than said it was okay to have the costs of a site visit comped. The higher percentage finding this practice acceptable could be a result of the generally widespread practice in the United States of business travelers being allowed to keep points for their own personal use as a tacitly acknowledged perk. But that doesn't mean the practice is ethically blemish-free for planners.
"I had a client that had a monthly meeting at a local hotel," O'Neill said. "We'd always done it there, and it had been pretty standard, the same thing every month. The hotel came to me and said, 'We can give you reward points for holding this meeting here.' I didn't see a problem with it. It wasn't like I did it intentionally. I simply brought it up to the [client] and said, 'Oh, and by the way, these points are going to my company's account' - and everybody was fine with that. But at the time I thought, 'Hmm, I wonder if that puts me in a position of owing them something.'"
Some planners believe that it might - and decline to accept such bonuses. "Rewards points need to be designed to benefit the hosting organizations, not the planners who are signing the contracts," one survey respondent wrote. "Although I receive points and miles for my organization's meetings, I strictly redeem [them] for something that benefits the organization," such as site visits, a master-account reduction, or conference registration fees.
Gifts. Our survey also asked respondents whether their organization places a limit on the dollar amount allowed for "gifts and entertaining." Thirteen percent said they have a $25 limit per item per vendor, 13 percent a $50 limit, and 11 percent a $100 limit - with the majority (63 percent) having no limit at all. This, Hilliard said, is where a written ethics policy comes in handy. That way, when planners receive, say, a solid gold pen from a supplier, they can look it up in the manual and easily determine whether it falls within the allowable dollar amount.
But, still, meeting professionals must understand that no matter the cost, a gift is never just a nice gesture. "There is a wishful thinking in meeting planning that is exactly the same in many other industries," said Christopher Bauer, Ph.D., an ethics expert who spoke at PCMA's 2008 annual meeting, "that marketing materials and marketing opportunities ... somehow won't affect my purchasing decisions."
With that in mind, Bauer recommends that planners do two things. First, "forget this wishful-thinking nonsense that somehow marketing opportunities don't change behavior; they change behavior routinely and effectively," he said. Second, "remember that any time there is a monetary limit placed on a gift ... it really is arbitrary. The reality is, who is going to coherently describe the difference between a $75 gift and a $125 gift?"
In other words, you can't just rely on policy: You have to use your own judgment in concert with the guidelines your organization has in place. "I do keep it in the front of my mind," O'Neill said, "that I'm making my decisions based on business facts and profit. I really can't be bought for a free hotel night or a free lunch."
Cracking the Code
But if ethics guidelines aren't available in the first place, you have nothing to go on but your own judgment, which often can be a recipe for disaster. And, unfortunately, a universally recognized, industry-wide code of ethics doesn't exist at present. (To read PCMA's Principles of Professional and Ethical Conduct, visitwww.pcma.org/documents/code_of_ethics.pdf.) "Some people would argue that we are a profession, and all professions have codes of ethics; so therefore we should have some sort of code," Breiter said. But how specific or generic would that code need to be? "That's where you'd probably have a hard time getting agreement in the industry," she said. "The devil's in the details."
The devil can also be in the lack of details, according to Bauer. "Ethics codes are notoriously unhelpful, and [often] fall into one of several unhelpful categories," he said. "A list of rules, or they simply say, 'Don't lie, don't cheat, don't steal,' [or] basically a single-spaced, 60-page, legalese, risk-management document that doesn't help at all."
How can your organization formulate a code of ethics that is genuinely helpful? One way is by doing what Kirklen's team was engaged in when Convene called for an interview: communicating. "The way we define and refine our standard of ethics is by talking about it," O'Neill said, "and by looking at it from different points of view and in different situations."
The most important place to start is by deciding what values you want to promote. "If an organization really is serious about developing a culture of ethics ... there needs to be a statement that really nails with absolutely clarity what are the most important, most persistent priorities for its members or its employees," Bauer said. "So that all day, every day, folks can effectively self-evaluate: Is what I'm about to do really, fully, and appropriately aligned with the values that this industry or this organization says I'm supposed to have?"
Bauer recommends backing up that statement with a separate but related code of conduct, containing examples that illustrate just how an organization's various values, as enumerated in the code of ethics, should manifest themselves in the real world. One good rule of thumb, as expressed by several people interviewed for this article, is the "newspaper test": Would you want whatever it is you're about to do to be reported on the front page of your local newspaper?
Finally, there's education. "A lot of corporate planners, or corporations in general, have ethics training," Hilliard said. "Many associations and nonprofits don't do that." Even if your organization does have a written policy, but junior members aren't educated as to what's expected of them ethically, how can they be expected to know when they cross the line?
"Having a well-written ethics code is of huge value, but only if there is effective training on what it says, what it means, and how to actively bring it to life," Bauer said.
After all, he added, "Enron had a terrifically well-written ethics code ... [which] in and of itself was of no use absent the appropriate training, oversight, and appropriate organizational ethical tone."
> Hunter R. Slaton is a senior editor of Convene.
Respondents left an avalanche of comments in response to our ethics survey's final question, which asked whether the meetings industry was doing fine ethically, or if there is room for reform. What follows below, and throughout this article, is a small sample of what they wrote.
"Because I am based in Canada, I don't see ethics as being as much of a concern as in the U.S."
"As a planner, I am very careful to act ethically and professionally. There are times when suppliers try to push the limits."
"We're not members of Congress. Even in the event of an ethical breach, the reach CMPs and other planners have is not extensive into the community, industry, etc. Personally, I feel the debate over meetings ethics has been inflamed by medical meetings as well as government meetings - but, as a whole, is a nonissue. Let's not create controversy and self-regulation where none is needed."
"Sales departments are designed to get people to use their services (just like in any other industry), so I don't think it is unethical for them to offer benefits to planners.
However, it is up to the planner to make the final decision, keeping in mind that bad ones will affect their reputation. Some offers of thanks and appreciation are warranted, but the planner needs to use common sense as to what is appropriate and what is not."
"I think some things that may be 'borderline' as far as ethics [are concerned] are a necessity in certain circumstances. For example, travel and site inspections for potential meetings may not be budgeted in an organization. A fam or sponsored trip may provide the ability to showcase a venue/destination that might not otherwise have been considered. Speaking from personal experience, I have booked several meetings at locations that I iscovered 'by accident' during a sponsored event that I would not have considered otherwise."
A Framework for Ethical Decision-Making
The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, in Santa Clara, Calif., concerns itself with developing tools and programs to address real-world ethical issues. While not specific to the meetings industry, the Markkula Center's 10-step "Framework for Ethical Decision-Making" can serve as a useful "decision tree" for any planner to use when confronted with an ethical dilemma.
Recognize an Ethical Issue
1. Could this decision or situation be damaging to someone or to some group? Does this decision involve a choice between a good and bad alternative, or perhaps between two "goods" or between two "bads"?
2. Is this issue about more than what is legal or what is most efficient? If so, how?
Get the Facts
3. What are the relevant facts of the case?
What facts are not known? Can I learn more about the situation? Do I know enough to make a
4. What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome? Are some concerns more important? Why?
5. What are the options for acting? Have all the relevant persons and groups been
consulted? Have I identified creative options?
Evaluate Alternative Actions
6. Evaluate the options by asking the following questions:
- Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm? (The Utilitarian Approach)
- Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake? (The Rights Approach)
- Which option treats people equally or proportionately? (The Justice Approach)
- Which option best serves the community as a whole, not just some members? (The Common Good Approach)
- Which option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be? (The Virtue Approach)
Make a Decision and Test It
7. Considering all these approaches, which option best addresses the situation?
8. If I told someone I respect - or told a television audience - which option I have chosen, what would they say?
Act and Reflect on the Outcome
9. How can my decision be implemented with
the greatest care and attention to the concerns of all stakeholders?
10. How did my decision turn out, and what have I learned from this specific situation?
- Reprinted with permission of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University (www.scu.edu/ethics).
Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the following article from a previous issue of Convene:
- "'Stronger Than Concern & Weaker Than Panic,'" which is about the revisions to the PhRMA and AdvaMed codes of ethics that went into effect last year and are still the subject of discussion and debate among meeting professionals:http://bit.ly/94SE5U.
- Then, to earn one hour of CEU credit toward your CMP®, visit www.pcma.org/convenecmp to answer questions about the material contained in these two articles.
The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.