How to Use In-Person Events to Foster Diversity + Inclusion

By Elizabeth W. Engel, M.A., CAE, and Sherry Marts, Ph.D • June 13, 2017

Elizabeth W. Engel, M.A., CAE, Spark Consulting
Sherry A. Marts, Ph.D., S*Marts Consulting

Membership organizations know that the millennial generation, which will soon be the majority of our workforce and membership base, is the most diverse generation we’ve ever had in North America. And the yet-to-be-named generation coming up behind them is even more so.

Membership organizations are also aware of the ever-increasing number of studies showing that increased diversity and authentic inclusion produce innovation, better decision-making, faster and more creative problem-solving, better outcomes, and an improved bottom line.

Membership organizations know that embracing and promoting D+I is the right thing to do, on many levels.

And many membership organizations have adopted strong statements that claim a commitment to D+I among their leadership and membership.

Where organizations often stumble is in turning those beautifully crafted and carefully vetted D+I statements into real change among staff teams, volunteer leadership, the memberships, and the professions and industries we serve.

But membership organizations also have a secret power: the depth and variety of relationships you have with your audiences. Those deep, ongoing relationships with boards of directors, members, and the industries and professions you serve provide an excellent opportunity to have a significant impact on diversity and inclusion, but also carry with them increased responsibility to create change.

For instance, in-person events like conferences can be fraught situations. Bringing large groups of people together in semi-professional, semi-social situations sets the stage for potential misconduct. Participation in conferences is often critical to professional advancement, but it also creates an ideal environment for ill-intentioned people to harass other attendees, most frequently (but not always) based on their race/ethnicity, gender expression or sexual orientation. That’s a challenge.

But membership organizations have a corresponding opportunity to foster change at in-person events via creating and enforcing strong codes of conduct.

Meeting harassment is far more common than you may realize. (For the data on this, see these survey results.) To be effective in preventing and addressing meeting harassment:

  • Create a strong meeting harassment policy that includes a clear, simple reporting mechanism (the Entomological Society of America’s code of conduct is a good example).
  • Train your staff.
  • Program a pop-up into your online event registration, and require all meeting registrants to indicate that they have read it and agree to abide by it. That doesn’t mean they’ll read it, it just means they can’t claim they didn’t know about it.
  • Put the policy in a prominent place in your meeting program, like inside the front cover. Don’t bury it on page 55.
  • Make sure your code of conduct includes detailed information about how and to whom to report an incident: name, cell phone number and email address. If you want to encourage reporting, this should be one person, not just “staff.”
  • Put the policy with the contact information on signs that are posted throughout the meeting venue, including the exhibit hall and especially at the entrances of any event where alcohol is served.
  • Announce the policy at the start of all plenary sessions.

This accomplishes two crucial things: you’ve put potential harassers on notice, while also sending a clear message to women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and others that you are committed to creating a safe and welcoming meeting. If you actually enforce the policy by removing harassers from your meetings and banning repeat harassers from registering and attending, what you’ll see is a spike in incident reports for the first couple of meetings, and then a rapid drop-off as the worst of the serial harassers are weeded out, and the others learn to rein themselves in.

To learn more about how you can leverage the variety of relationships your organization has with your audiences to create genuine diversity and inclusion, download your free copy of Include is a Verb: Moving from Talk to Action on Diversity and Inclusion at