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Just Say No to Mad Men Meetings

As a recent example of institutionalized sexual harassment at a charity auction suggests, we need to do a lot more to stamp out sexual harassment at events.

I had really hoped these days were over, but I just read in the Financial Times about the recent Presidents Club charity auction in London, where hostesses were apparently literally up for grabs by the men-only audience. Obviously, we still have a sadly long way to go to keep #MeToo out of meetings.

The publication sent women undercover to pose as two of the 130 hostesses hired for the event, and their stories of the hostesses being propositioned, groped, and verbally abused by many of the 360 black-tie-wearing British business, political, finance, and entertainment industry big shots in attendance are pretty shocking. Or should be, anyway, though I found myself surprisingly not shocked. Depressed and angry, yes, but not shocked.

The FT reports that the event brochure had a full-page warning that sexual harassment was not among the items on the auction block. And the Presidents Club statement in the FT article claims complete ignorance of any wrongdoing at the event, saying organizers are “appalled by the allegation of bad behavior,” calling said behavior “totally unacceptable,” and stating that the organization plans to investigate the allegations and take appropriate action.

However, there were plenty of “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” hints that the warning might mostly be for show and that this event's history may include similar bad behavior, again according to the FT article. One intimation that this was going to be a harassment-ripe environment was that the hostesses were told what underwear they had to wear beneath their required “skimpy outfits” (even in my worst job as a waitress in a 1970s-era disco, we weren’t told what to wear under our midriff-baring tops and harem pants!) Another was the requirement that hostesses sign a five-page nondisclosure agreement without getting to read it first, or keep a copy of it. For more depressing examples, check out the FT article.

While there reportedly were some nods at this year’s event to today’s more respectful attitude toward women, it’s stretching beyond credulity to think that this is something new to the more-than-three decade-old event, despite protestations to the contrary.

Related: Why Your Conference Needs a Code of Conduct

I’ve been going to meetings and events for a long time, and I’ve seen and experienced all-too-many incidents of sexual harassment. As with sexual harassment in any other environment, it’s almost always those who hold the power who exert it over those who have lesser status—bosses over employees, attendees over staff, sponsors over attendees and staff—add alcohol and things can get ugly as inhibitions loosen. 

So, to say the obvious, lets not even think about having a zero-tolerance policy while at the same time setting a harassment=friendly environment, as it appears was the case at this event. Just say no to booth babes, disrespectful signage, jokes that demean, etc., OK? Words mean nothing when they’re not backed by actions.

Yes, individual cases could happen, of course, despite your setting clear expectations and embodying safety—including freedom from sexual harassment—in everything to do with your event. Lets set clear rules, with consequences, then empower staff, attendees, speakers, exhibitors, everyone, to say something if they see something. And then do something, fast, and final, to stop it.

There’s really no excuse for an event to go all Mad Men in this day and age. None.

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