What Would You Do? Ethical and Moral Quandaries in the Meetings Industry

Meeting Planning

“What would you do?” It’s a question we ponder every time we encounter a situation where the questionable behavior of others beckons us to make a choice: get involved and say something—or keep quiet and look the other way.

It’s a particularly timely subject in this age of #MeToo, where emboldened victims are coming forward to call out transgressions and other illicit behavior that have been tolerated quietly for decades. In the professional meetings world, “What would you do?” is a question we face every day as we are presented with ethical and moral dilemmas.

In my experience as a meetings industry veteran of more than 40 years, and as a professional actor and series regular on the popular ABC-TV hidden-camera show What Would You Do? (WWYD), I have been exposed to many scenarios where I have seen people do the right thing or, conversely, stay silent in the face of injustice, misconduct, discrimination or morally wrong decisions.

Lessons Learned

On the set of “What Would You Do?” with host John Quinones (second from right), Michael Lyons (second from left) and fellow actors

It has been an interesting and insightful ride for me as a cast member of WWYD over the past few years. I have participated in more than a dozen staged ethical scenarios designed to give unsuspecting bystanders (who are unaware of the hidden cameras) the opportunity to react to and engage actors in response to their roles as instigators in the given scene.

The show addresses many difficult topics such as racism, bullying and other biased attitudes. From my front row vantage point, the reactions I see give me a unique perspective on the human condition—because no one realizes they are being watched and candid reactions unfold for all to see. I usually play the antagonist role, which I don’t enjoy since I am the villain and the things I must say in character do not reflect my own beliefs. Inevitably someone always speaks up to defend the “victim” in the scene and it’s always heart-warming to see that most people are decent, concerned human beings who are not afraid to stand up for what is right. There have been times where I have been so moved by people’s reactions to my antics that I have teared up.

Filmed in restaurants, parks, stores and other locations throughout the country, WWYD is hosted by broadcast journalist John Quinones. The show just celebrated its 10th anniversary, though Quinones says he never expected that the show would be this popular and last this long. But its huge legion of loyal fans tune in each Friday night to see what people will do and use it as a learning moment (sometimes with a box of tissues nearby in response to the emotions evoked in most of the episodes).

As WWYD moves into its second decade, Quinones reflects on the mission of the show: “We’re simply trying to shine a light on issues that happen in real life but often occur in the shadows, when no one is watching. With WWYD’s hidden cameras, we bring them into the light. We don’t pretend to be a scientific study into the country’s morals and ethics. But we do give you a ‘slice of the pie’—a sampling of how Americans feel toward a multitude of divisive issues.”

What is Ethical?

Overall, defining what is “ethical” can sometimes be a gray area, but for the most part, defining what is appropriate behavior in the meetings industry, and its potential impact on a person’s career, is less so. Meeting professionals and suppliers put themselves at great risk when they elect to ignore ethical boundaries, usually for personal gain. The repercussions can be quite serious—even when they may not have been aware of an ethical violation that broke company policy.

Most organizations have ethics policies in place—so that’s a good place to start. If you are not familiar with them—read up and familiarize yourself. Policies usually include specifics regarding proper behavior, dos and don’ts as it relates to the acceptance of gifts and other remuneration and guidelines on hosted buyer programs, FAM trips and other travel-related offerings.

However, even with an ethical policy in place, the meeting planning profession poses some unique situations. Sometimes the boundaries can be blurry due to the “perks” that go along with the job, i.e. staying in luxurious suites during site inspections, getting wined and dined by hoteliers, DMCs and CVBs, and complimentary spa treatments or services. Planners are also showered with gifts, souvenirs and other items of value so the appearance of a conflict of interest is there.

Navigating Temptation in Meetings Industry

Like the situations acted out on the WWYD TV show, the meetings industry is fraught with ethical and moral land mines—temptations that we all must navigate as we go through our careers. When we see questionable actions or behavior, we are faced with the “What Will I Do?” question. Do we stand up and say something or ignore it and act like nothing happened. More importantly, when we are the ones contemplating an ethical breach—which inner voice do we follow—the one telling us “it just doesn’t feel right”, or the one that says, “No one will ever know, plus I work hard and deserve it.”

There are numerous opportunities to cross the ethical line, and unfortunately people do it all the time. In my 45 year career I have seen dozens of examples of unethical behavior such as gouging clients; dishonest representation (knowingly overestimating or lying) about capabilities; bribing planners with offers of free stays for their family vacation if they book a big group; FAM abuse; and stealing proprietary or confidential information (intellectual property in the form of creative ideas submitted by vendors who were not picked), etc.

When someone crosses that line, not only is it wrong and reflects poorly on the organization the individual works for, but reputations (and careers) can be forever tarnished, and lead to termination and/or legal and financial consequences.

We all have a responsibility to play by the rules and to speak up when we hear or see something that is wrong. Whether it’s harassment, cheating, stealing or other misbehavior, we can either get involved and call out the offense, or stick our head in the sand and claim “it’s none of my business.”

Ethical Scenarios that Merit Close Deliberation

Scenario 1

Hotel Rewards Points:

You work for a third-party planning company who has been hired to manage a large group’s annual conference. The total number of room nights in the room block will be more than 5,000. The host hotel where you booked the meeting has offered to put all the hotel rewards points on your personal account—a significant amount that would be enough to pay for a nice getaway for a week for you and your family.

The points rightfully belong to the company whose conference you are planning. Do you accept the points quietly or do you ask them to be awarded to the company to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest?

Bottom line: It is not ethical for the third-party planner to accept the points on an individual basis. Any points accrued should benefit the group being served.

Scenario 2:

FAM Trip:

You are a corporate planner with responsibility for all events and meetings that take place in the continental U.S. You are invited on a FAM trip to France—a destination you will never book. Do you accept the trip under false pretenses or tell the host that you must graciously decline since you do not plan any international meetings?

Bottom line: FAM (familiarization) trips are among the most common abuses by planners. They are usually expense-paid trips to a destination(s) and/or a hotel(s) to allow the planner to experience and see first-hand the offerings of that destination or property. But when a planner knowingly accepts a trip to a destination that they will never book, it’s the same as accepting a complimentary vacation—an obvious ethical no-no.

Placing all the blame on the planner, though, is unfair. Supplier sales people are under pressure to get planners to attend and will oftentimes turn a blind eye to some planners who are not legitimate prospects to beef up the numbers. Suppliers need to step up and stop inviting planners they know are not qualified.

Scenario 3:

Stealing Intellectual Property

You are an association planner bringing your large annual association trade show and conference to a major U.S. city. You have sent a lengthy RFP to 5 DMCs in that destination requesting detailed proposals with creative concepts for all three evening functions during the event, including food and beverage recommendations, as well as a quote for transportation services and tours to be conducted during leisure time.

After reviewing the proposals, you elect to not hire any of the companies that submitted a bid, opting to work directly with the florists, decor companies, venues, transportation and tour companies and caterers—and to use some of the ideas gleaned from the proposals.

Bottom line: It is unethical to use any of the intellectual property and proprietary information that was submitted in good faith. Whether it is specifically mentioned in the bid response or not, all information in the bid response should be considered confidential and should not be used.

This problem is near and dear to me as a former Destination Management Company owner. Throughout the years while I was at that company, there were numerous instances of planners who stole the creative ideas that our company designed, and then produced them on their own, thereby robbing us of our intellectual property, the opportunity to be hired to execute our vision for the program, and of course, the revenue.

Scenario 4:

Accepting Free Stays and Park Passes

You are a planner conducting a site visit to Orlando, Florida, to check out various hotel properties for your company’s large sales meeting. You have brought along your husband and two kids to take advantage of the proximity of the attractions and parks in the region.

Recognizing that the hotels are hungry for your business you ask them for free passes for you and your family members to Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and a water park. The hotel sales people comply with your request, as uncomfortable and awkward as the request may be from their standpoint.

Bottom line: It is completely inappropriate and highly unethical to ask for tickets/passes for family members while on a site inspection. This is not an accepted practice and puts the suppliers in a troubling position. In fact, their willingness to cooperate with this request places them in an unethical situation as well.

Just Do the Right Thing

As professionals in the meetings industry, we all must be aware of the optics and the pitfalls of unethical behavior. How we react to certain situations sets an example for our co-workers. Putting reputations and career advancement in jeopardy is not worth the short-term pay-off that comes with short-sighted unscrupulous decisions.

When faced with situations that are clearly wrong, consult with your superiors and/or human resources team for guidance. Better safe than sorry. You only get one career.

Michael Lyons is a professional speaker, author, actor and Host of Smart Meetings TV.