About your conference…

The SHRM Annual Conference is one of my favorites. It is consistently a great opportunity for me to see a bunch of folks I dig, meet some new folks to dig, and I always catch a bit of a buzz off of 15-20,000 HR professionals gathered together to talk about this stuff called work. While I have been lucky enough to be on the agenda for the past 6 years, this year I will be on the beach with my family when the conference takes place in New Orleans. It’s a hard knock life.

In 2015 the conference was in Las Vegas, and one of the extracurricular events I participated in was a Poetry Slam. It was actually a fundraiser for No Kid Hungry organized and hosted by some good folks from Dovetail Software, Quantum Workplace, and Broadbean. It was good fun, my smart friend Heather Kinzie won the slam (with a poem she had written the night before no less!), and as far as I know she remains the reigning HR Poet Laureate.

What really stuck with me as I left the event that evening, and has continued to stick with me, came from a poem called “Hello, my name is…”, delivered by Crystal Miller-Lay. Crystal is the boss at Branded Strategies, has been a vendor in the HR space for as long as I have known her, and has probably been to far more conferences than I have. Her poem is about those conference experiences, it is a sampling of the things that have been said to her over the years by other vendors and conference attendees and it is not at all inspiring.

Of course I knew that this happens at conferences and similar events, but hearing about the personal experiences of someone you like and respect is always different from knowing “stuff happens to people.” What really threw me though was that Crystal was talking largely about HR related conferences…you know, the people who are supposed to “get it.”

Several days later, when the topic of conferences came up in a conversation with the marketing lead at a client organization, she knowingly nodded her head as I summarized what Crystal had said in her poem. She went on to explain how her team prepares for conferences, to make sure that their behavior is in all ways appropriate and professional, but mostly to make sure that they are looking out for and taking care of each other. She also shared several personal stories – and again clarified for me, “HR conferences are no different.”

Most of the conference horror stories that I had heard were at other kinds of conferences and I let myself assume that it did not happen at our events. If you are a conference attendee, presenter, exhibitor or planner, hopefully you will not make this same mistake.

And I have some help for you.

Sherry Marts is another good, smart friend. I know Sherry from the association space, and was lucky enough to co-present with her at the ASAE Annual Meeting in 2016, where we spoke about inclusive meetings, conferences, and events. Sherry has produced an incredibly insightful and actionable paper called Open Secrets and Missing Stairs: Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment at Scientific Meetings. If you, your co-workers, or anyone else from your organization plans, attends, or exhibits at professional conferences or meetings it is a must read. It does a wonderful job of shining the light on how often harassment takes place, the many forms it takes, and most importantly, what to do about it.

A few points from Sherry’s research:

  • Harassment experience: 60% of respondents reported having experienced harassment at a meeting at some point in their careers, of whom 49% said they were asked for sex and 39% said they were touched, groped, or grabbed.
  • Impact on behavior: 33% avoid going to social or networking events.
  • Barriers to reporting: 82% of those reporting experiences of harassment at meetings did not report it, 54% did not know how or to whom to report, 46% were afraid of being labeled a complainer or trouble-maker.

As stated in the title, this paper is focused on scientific meetings, and your industry may be somewhat better or worse off. The opportunity at hand, for all of us, is to take a very intentional approach toward making sure that our values and promises show up in the way that attendees, vendors, presenters, and volunteers experience our event. And there is clearly some room for improvement. Sherry closes the paper with some basic guidelines for event planners and organizers:

  • Adopt, implement, and enforce anti-harassment policies or codes of conduct for meetings.
  • Hire or train at-meeting responders to handle incident reports.
  • Provide bystander intervention and ally training on when and how to intervene in harassment incidents.
  • Provide training to session chairs and moderators to stop harassment and bullying by or of speakers and during Q and A sessions.

Do you know how people are experiencing your event? 

Be good to each other.


upcoming travel, let me know if you would like to connect:

Miami, Fl March 27, 28, 29 for client work

Washington D.C. April 4, 5, 5 for the Nonprofit Talent & Culture Summit

Milwaukee, WI April 21, 22, 23 for client work

Houston, TX May 11, 12 for Gulf Coast Symposium on HR Issues

Montreal, Canada May 22, 23 for client work

San Francisco, CA May 24, 25 for client work


  1. Conference Format in a Digital Society | Karla Porter

    […] Over at Joe Gerstandt's blog, he's got some great tips for conference safety. If you're a planner or anyone concerned about the attendee experience, check it out! […]

  2. Karla Porter

    Joe – I guess conference planning is on the minds of many this time of year. Safety at conferences is just as important as it is in any other venue, event or forum, and having an appropriate policy / plan is fundamental. I am also interested in input about conferences. If you or any of your readers care to share ideas on format I would love to hear them. I have edited my post to share yours and hopefully we’ll see some good info swapping. https://karlaporter.com/conference-format-in-a-digital-society/

  3. Brad G.

    Joe – I too remember Crystal’s poem in Vegas and have sadly also witnessed bad behavior more than once. We banned someone from one of our conferences for inappropriate behavior and made sure that his employer was aware of the incident. At another event, I was asked to escort someone I had just met back to the hotel from a nearby bar since another conference attendee was being way too friendly and she was scared. I guess I appeared to be both intimidating to him yet safe for her.
    Thanks for raising this important issue and yes, be nice to people!

  4. Martha Perea

    Hi Joe. I just wanted you to know how bummed I am that you won’t be at SHRM in NOLA, although spending time with your family at the beach sounds wonderful! You’ll be missed. Hope to see you in Chicago in 2018!

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