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Ethics 101: Navigate Ethical Dilemmas at Work

By Brittany Trevick

Stealing company money. Hiding commission from clients. Hidden vendor fees. Clients talking directly to vendors instead of the planner. Holiday gift giving. Lying to hotels about rates. Giving preferential treatment to those who offer money or gifts.

All of these instances pose varying levels of ethical challenges that planners and suppliers may face while working in the industry. To some they’re more serious, to others not. Ethics have a lot to do with how you internally perceive it.

The meetings and events industry is unique in that there is no strict code of ethics. There may be individual companies that have their own policies, and some industry associations do have their own codes. Applicants to the Certified Meeting Professional program must sign a code of ethics, members of the Convention Industry Council have their own code of ethics and Meeting Professionals International members must follow a code of conduct regarding online situations.

But there is nothing across the board that applies to every single meeting and event planner.

Education & Awareness

While there are clearly challenges in the industry, Julie Ann Schmidt, CMP, CMM, founder and CEO of Lithium Logistics Group, reiterates that things have vastly improved from where they were 20 years ago. This can be attributed to several things, including a bigger industry, more education—both on the side of planners and clients—and a different generation in the workforce.

“When a person does something wrong, everyone knows about it,” she says. “There’s just more education and more people going through programs where ethics is definitely a component that gets talked about.”

Michael Shannon, CMP, director, business development for Business Events Canada, presents on ethics at conferences and notes that the industry has evolved in terms of ethics, citing social media as a reason. Anything anyone does can go viral within minutes, so people are much more careful of their business practices and how they conduct themselves.

“There is so much going on with social media right in your face so we see breaches all across from Hollywood to the Hill,” he says. “Being on tomorrow’s front page isn’t good for anyone whether [you’re in] corporate America or our industry.”

Instances Small and Large

By far one of the biggest aspects of the industry that is most vulnerable to unethical behavior is familiarization (FAM) trips—such as planners acting inappropriately while on the trip or using that trip to their personal advantage (e.g. making it part of their family vacation or traveling there when they know they won’t ever book in that city or hotel).

While FAM trips are an easy thing to abuse, the idea behind them isn’t unethical. “A lot of people looking in tend to look at [FAM trips] as unethical, but they don’t realize it’s part of the business,” says Monique Rochard-Marine, CMM, CMP, CTSM, MBA, senior manager, strategic meetings management and event operations of Cardiovascular Systems, Inc. in St. Paul. “They’re trying to market their product to you.”

But there are limits. Rochard-Marine mentions planners who demand presidential suites, threatening they won’t give the hotel business if they don’t get the highest of services. Or planners who go to Iceland or Africa for free knowing they will never bring business there. Sometimes people even take their entire family, turning it into a vacation.

“That’s unethical in my eyes because it’s wasting people’s time. That’s taking advantage of the situation,” she says. “It gives planners a bad reputation.”

One supplier who works for a major event production company in Minneapolis avoids incentive travel because she knows how some planners abuse the perk, something she notes is especially problematic for planners in the Twin Cities area.

“I’ve witnessed planners who go on trips for venues that they would never use,” she says. “The Twin Cities is a very small community. I’m always surprised by the poor business practices that people demonstrate knowing that we talk to each other.”

Schmidt conducts her business and personal life to high ethical standards. While she’s witnessed people doing unethical things in her two-plus decades in the industry, she believes that standards have gotten higher in the past 10 years. On the flip side, she also notes that when you’ve shown yourself to be a person with high ethical standards, others are less likely to make unethical or inappropriate decisions in front of you, especially in terms of bribes and special gifts.

“I think that it takes someone to show they are unethical for offers to be made,” she says. “If a person is looking to be unethical on the receiving end, they tend to open the door to it versus a supplier making an unethical suggestion. It’s risky for them because they could lose business. It’s easier to ask for the bribe than it is to offer.”

Schmidt notes that ethical challenges fall on a spectrum. There’s saying yes to a FAM trip to a destination they know they won’t bring business to, to something much more serious such as offering a vendor a complimentary trade show booth for free diamond earrings or money—something Schmidt has heard about personally.

“That’s the most blatant I’ve run across,” she says. “You have a reputation that follows you and smearing it will take a lifetime to get rid of.”

She’s also known people who would give a portion of their commission back to the client on a personal level to ensure they kept the business going forward. Others may get a quote from a hotel of $180 a night, for example. The planner would rather have $170, so they lie and say that a competitor is willing to charge $170.

I think that’s lying and not appropriate to misrepresent competition or falsify a competitor’s offer in the marketplace,” says Schmidt. “You have to be honest and direct. I’m a partner with every hotel, and I want them to put their best foot forward and their best offer forward so my client has the best options to choose from.”

In the industry, it’s common to work with third-party event management groups. Rochard-Marine warns that some companies will hide fees that are only seen if you do a full audit, which takes time and resources away from other projects. Transparency goes a long way.

“That to me is very unethical because you’re getting business based on a lie,” she says. “My whole philosophy is you be open to me, I’ll be open to you.”

With regards to budgeting, RochardMarine notes that meetings and events aren’t as scrutinized by executive leadership. If you’re spending millions of dollars on a huge event, someone isn’t going to look if $10,000 is missing unless they do an audit and follow the paper trail. But it’s difficult for larger companies to find unless there are a lot of little pieces that don’t add up.

“It goes to show how easy you can work the system,” she says. “If you know how to do it and know the right people it’s not hard.”

On the flip side of witnessing unethical behavior from colleagues and others in the industry is witnessing unethical behavior from clients. The aforementioned supplier cites clients who go to a vendor directly if the client knows the company name instead of going through her and her colleagues. That way they can save money on fees or other costs. The vendor will occasionally confront the client who will then try to explain the situation. “It’s ethics versus poor business practices.”

With such a deeply negative connotation and a meaning that could be different for everyone, the term “unethical” shouldn’t be used lightly. “It’s a very fine line. You want to be careful when accusing someone of being unethical.

Confronting the Issue

Depending on the severity of the problem, the best first step to take when seeing someone do something that seems unethical—especially if it’s a corporate policy—is to take that person aside and gently ask them if they knew that was a policy or involve HR. Most of the time that person won’t realize what they’ve done is unethical, says Schmidt.

When dealing with ethical issues related to outside vendors, the aforementioned supplier goes to her boss—the owner of the company— for advice on how to address the situation. Sometimes the answer is to not work with that company again, and sometimes, especially if the vendor or venue is taking business away, it’s to confront the client.

“There are red-flag people,” she says. “It’s a small community. There might be vendors or venues or clients that you just make sure you cross your ‘t’s and dot your ‘i’s. You’re sort of on guard.”

For Rochard-Marine, even a small red flag shouldn’t be taken lightly. If someone does something questionable, that could be an indicator that they’re fine with pulling off bigger and more inappropriate acts. “They will continue to do it and get bigger and bigger,” she says. “That’s when you find yourself asking, ‘Should I be here? Should I report this? Is this right?’”

Another way to avoid unethical planners and vendors is to network. By meeting people and getting to know someone, you’ll quickly develop an idea of their code of ethics. “I’ve been burned by companies that have had really bad ethics compared to mine,” says Rochard-Marine. “You have to make sure you’re working with somebody who has the same ethics as you do.”

The meetings and events industry has always been different in that gift giving and perks are a frequent benefit from suppliers. They’re trying to sell you something; the question is whether to accept it. The industry doesn’t have an established protocol; it relies more on your ethics and what you find to be acceptable.

Some things are obvious: don’t blast your company on social media or spread confidential company information—but others aren’t. Sometimes, strong ethics mean one thing to someone and a completely other thing to someone else—especially in the meetings and events industry.