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How to handle a harassment complaint at your event

Alternate title: Good practices for organizational management of a harassment complaint

Note: This document is not exhaustive and may be updated with additional suggested policies. I am not a trained harassment manager and there may be more detailed documents that you should reference when planning your event.

Step 1: Have a harassment policy
You can call a Code of Conduct, or some other name, but you must have a policy that clearly states what behaviors are not allowed at your event. The policy should state that failure to follow it can lead to expulsion from the event without refund. It should also have clear instructions for how to report a violation. All of your attendees should be asked to agree to this policy if they want to attend your event. If you do not have a policy, stop running your event until you do. This is for your own legal protection as well as the protection of your attendees. You need legal grounds to remove disruptive people from your event.

Step 2: Safety Committee
You need some people who are designated to handle any violations of your behavioral policies. They need to be trained and given a detailed instruction set (like this one you’re reading) for how you expect them to handle any issues. Having set up your committee, TRUST THEM. If you do not trust their judgement, then you have an organizational problem. You as event organizer have enough things to handle, don’t spend time second guessing your committee. There may be situations where you need to be involved in the decision process, but for the most part let your committee have the power to handle things.

Step 3: The victim comes to you
When someone comes to you to report a violation of your policy, the first concern of the staff member should be to make the victim feel safe. If there is an imminent danger or ongoing disruption, that must be managed first. The victim should be brought into contact with a member of the safety committee as quickly as possible. Either walk them there (if in person) or perform an email introduction (if online). Any staff who are not on the safety committee should step out of the process at this point. Helping the victim feel safe might include finding a private location, getting a friend to sit with them, switching to a safety person of similar gender. Always thank the victim for coming to report the incident. Reassure the victim that you want to know what happened.

Step 4: Listen
Listen to an account of the incident. Have the victim write it down, or write it down as they tell it to you. Be sympathetic to the victim. Validate their feelings. Ask for clarifying details. Find out if there are corroborating witnesses who are also willing to report. At the end of this step you should have a document signed by both the safety person and the victim that states what happened. (and additional reports from any witnesses) Both the victim and the safety committee should get a copy of this document. This document becomes a critical legal protection to both you and to the victim should things get complicated later. In a case of false reporting, this document also functions as a protection for the accused. Do not promise the victim any specific outcome from the report.

Step 5: Help the victim process
As part of listening to the victim and validating their feelings, discuss with them what they feel would be an appropriate consequence for the incident, ask “what would you like to have happen?” Document this answer in the report. It can help your committee’s decision making. Thank the victim for making the report. Give them contact info for the person who will be case manager for this incident. (Probably the person they reported to.) Tell them they can reach out and add to their report as needed. If they do reach out, note that on the report with date and time. Tell the victim that you will confer with your safety committee to make a decision about what is to be done and that you will get back to them within 24 hours with further information. (A longer timeline is acceptable if the victim is informed about why the longer timeline is needed.)

Step 6: Immediately contact your committee
They should be on call for exactly this sort of thing. If any committee members are close friends with either the victim or the accused, they should remove themselves from the discussion. If the entire committee is friends with either the victim or the accused, then seek out someone who can be impartial about the incident and hire them to arbitrate. Share the report, the victim’s requested consequence, and any observations the safety person may have. Compare the report with your policies to see if the consequence becomes obvious. Decide on a course of action. This can include anything from taking no action at all, to immediate expulsion from the event for the accused, to contacting the accused for more information or their own report, to contacting law enforcement, to consequences for a false report. Get a counter report from the accused. Have one of your staff advocating for the accused. The step-by-step process you are reading does not cover what actions are appropriate as consequences. That is a separate and nuanced discussion that is outside the scope of this document. Hopefully you had that discussion in detail while writing up your policy. Deciding what action is appropriate is tricky. Impartiality is critical. Part of your decision is choosing who will confront the accused (if confrontation is merited) and what back up they might require to keep everyone safe. Also who will advocate for the accused.

Step 7: Report to event managers
This step may take place between Step 6 and Step 8, or it might be something that just comes up at the next business meeting depending on the severity of the incident and how empowered the safety committee is to make decisions. Do not allow this step to be a blockade that prevents action. The key is to make sure that event managers know that an incident happened and have enough information to not be surprised if they are asked a question about it.

Step 8: Take the action
You may cycle through steps 6 to 8 multiple times as you gather additional information and reports. The key in this step is to act decisively and in a way that ensures safety of everyone involved. Make sure your action matches your stated policies. Also make sure that you extend as much courtesy and kindness toward an accused person.

Step 9: Inform the victim
Within 24 hours of the report (or on the previously agreed timeline), the victim should be contacted with either an update or the resolution of their issue. Make sure you assign a safety person who knows it is their job to keep the victim updated and to relay any ongoing concerns from the victim to the committee. Document those contacts and concerns in the report. Maintain contact with the victim until the incident is officially closed.

Step 10: Appeals and press
Someone is likely to be unhappy about the decision your safety committee made. They may post angry things to social media. They may outright lie about the events that happened. The only answer you give to any questions about the incident from people who were not directly involved is “For confidentiality reasons, we do not discuss any harassment complaints.” This is the answer that protects everyone. It preserves the confidentiality of both the accused and victim. It saves your event from legal liability and ongoing drama. The only time you ever release information from your harassment reports to anyone outside your safety and event management committees is if there is a legal case in which those documents become evidence. You do not need to prove you made the right choice. You as event organizer have the right to expel anyone from your event. At least you do if it is in your written and posted policy. Both the victim and the accused have the right to go to a court of law to challenge the decision you’ve made if they so wish.

Step 11: Post Mortem
The safety committee should meet periodically to discuss any incident reports and make sure appropriate follow up actions are taken. Equally important is that they examine their own handling of the incident to identify any weaknesses in the process or in the written harassment policy that need to be addressed. Make changes so that the next incident is handled as well as this one or better.

4 comments to How to handle a harassment complaint at your event

  • Martin Bonner

    I shudder to think what might have prompted this.

    … and if it didn’t happen to you or yours, it certainly did happen to someone yesterday.

    • A local event has been publicly failing at this, so it was on my mind. None of it directly affects my family, but some of my friends are tangled in the mess.

  • lurker

    As written, I think it leans to much towards presumption of guilt, and not enough protection for the accused. For one thing, getting a counter-report from the accused is absolutely necessary, as well as only fair; not just something that ‘can be useful’. And I am sorry to say that false reports are NOT ‘exceedingly rare’; adding that phrase does rather tend to prejudge the issue!

    I say this out of some experience: while I have never had anything to do with a convention, I have for years dealt with harrassment matters in my professional setting.

    Now, if I may be forgiven for offering personal advice to someone I have never met: if you are going to be active in this area you need to be careful of your own emotional/mental well-being, because you may have to deal with quite horrible people and it can be dreadfully sad.

    • Fair point. As I was writing this I had multiple situations in my head where events did not listen to or respect a victim, so that probably slanted my language. I’ve changed some wording, because I do believe that an impartial evaluation is important before action is taken.

      As for being active in this area, I don’t intend to dive into it. I wrote this up because it was on my mind and I think that many volunteer run events could benefit from a (very) basic road map on how to manage. Large or professional organizations should hire someone who is specifically trained to manage these things.