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Guest Post by Joan Eisenstodt

Asking the hard questions

JoanA few years ago at an ethics seminar I facilitated for an industry organization chapter, international students from a nearby college were puzzled by how to apply the industry standards set by US-based meetings/hospitality organizations when they moved back home to improve the economies of their countries. They asked to meet with me after the session to discuss what they could do when business was done by bribes and those who didn’t operate in that way would lose out. I had no easy answer. How could I tell someone to choose what I believed was the ethical course when it would mean not having any business?

Because I write and conduct ethics seminars frequently, I constantly think about the implications of my actions, our actions, as an industry, the appearance of what we do to others, and how to operate globally.

Code of Ethics

All of the Convention Industry Council (CIC) organizations are supposed to have ethics codes or standards in order to be a CIC member. Those of us who belong to any of these organizations have, by virtue of joining, regardless of who pays the dues, agreed to abide by those standards. Like the code I helped write as an Ethics Committee member – and later Chair – for ASAE (the American Society of Association Executives), they may be aspirational. That is, they serve as a guideline without repercussions if one violates these standards. Other codes, like those for CMPs (Certified Meeting Professional) are actionable.

As our industry continues to expand globally, I asked one of the more global CIC members how they were discussing their code with members outside North America where the ways in which doing business might be very different. I did not get a definitive response. Maybe we are still unsure what to suggest.

More questions than answers

Reading this article about how Chinese parents use bribes to get their children into elite schools, I was struck by this: “If everyone else is playing the game, how can I refuse?” If one grows up in a culture of bribing, how will we do business together? Will we choose the ethics of the country in which business is done?

What do you do now when working in or with a culture of bribing? In what ways can we guide others in our industry? And what role do our industry organizations have in developing and ensuring business is conducted ethically…and by whose standards?

Challenging our industry associations

As background: I am a recent past chair of the Ethics Committee for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and I have served on and chaired diversity and ethics committees for other organizations including MPI and PCMA. I have challenged these same organizations for violating their own codes of conduct, and in MPI’s case, for violating their own code and their signature on the UN Global Compact ( by taking a meeting to Dubai where it was documented that workers were being used as slave labor. MPI chose not to speak out. I suggested that the entire staff and Board involved in the decision and attending the meeting were in violation of the Code and should lose their memberships. I was told that they were in line because they had in fact done something while there. No documentation was ever provided and in conversations, I was told nothing was done. I challenged the MPI Board’s trip to China, putting both the Board in health’s harm’s way and not speaking out about the human rights violations there.

If you wait for others to act, nothing happens

Perhaps because I grew up around Survivors, because my parents and I were involved in the US Civil Rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s, and I in many demonstrations for rights for many peoples, your quoting of Martin Niemoller means so much as does this blog. If people wait for others to act, nothing happens.

Regarding the proposed boycott of the Sochi Olympics: I am in favor of it and have posted that elsewhere in discussions among international hospitality and meetings colleagues. I am also in favor of action in Sochi v. a boycott. There is much that can be done by one person, one team, one sponsor. Wearing rainbow flags as pins, speaking out, saying the companies are there to support the teams of their countries while saying out loud that they support the rights of each human being to live an open life and to have the rights of all is another.

The need for discussion

And on the other hand, I know that supporting the oppressed people of any country means we are supporting those who need to earn a living. Ah .. thus my own difficulty!

It is no different for me living in the US where workers in hotels are earning minimum wage and are treated poorly; where the industry depends on immigrant labor and stays silent on the issues of immigrant rights.

Ethics and behaving ethically is complex. If we do not discuss it, we change nothing. In our industry, where business is done with a wink and nod and lots of justification, it is no wonder those who have thus far spoken out are “pooh-poohing” actions. If it perhaps will impact their pockets being filled is another reason they and others may not speak up and out.

During the debate at Site in Orlando ask each person in the audience to consider what they would do if their rights were being abused – if they would support an event in a country or in a hotel or in a place that could imprison them for speaking out? My guess is that in that audience there will be those who could be and if not them, family members or friends. Ask then if they would want someone to act.

I anxiously await hearing what the discussion is. I hope it will not be the end. Ethics must be discussed at every industry gathering every time there is one. Otherwise, we never feel, think or change.

Joan Eisenstodt has been the most courageous and consistent spokespersons on ethics in the meetings industry for decades and I’m honoured to have received her permission to present some of her recent writings in edited form here on this blog. She’s also a fearless, combative opponent at Words and I am currently trying to reverse a bad run of 3 consecutive losses to her.

Joan is on Twitter @JoanEisenstodt



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