The Zimmerman trial and CBS’ Big Brother racial scandal have put the discussions about race and discrimination front and center.
Racism and discrimination are sensitive and delicate topics for sure.
So how do you ensure that your conference speakers avoid racial and discriminatory language? How do you protect your organization from inappropriate behavior of a speaker, volunteer or professional, that you secure for your event?
Sexually Offensive And Racist Words At A Conference
Around 2004, I faced some extremely difficult situations when a couple of the conference speakers I had secured, both a professional and an industry volunteer, made some discriminatory statements during their presentations. In both cases their presentations were recorded and we had evidence of their offensive language.
In one situation a well-known, marquee headliner started his presentation with two sexually offensive and racist jokes.
The first joke came and went. No one laughed. You could hear a pin drop in the audience of seven-thousand.
I was behind stage and quickly ran to my AV team that was controlling the switcher and teleprompter. I typed into his teleprompter: “Stop with the offensive jokes! Start your presentation or leave the stage.” It displayed as he started the second joke.
Amazingly, this presenter was able to turn the audience back into his favor and stopped the inappropriate behavior. He got a standing ovation at the end and apologized to my CEO for his opening remarks.
The second situation was more complicated. Attendees were outraged that this presenter made such sexually offensive and racist statements. He also went after religion and sexual orientation. When I confronted the speaker after his presentation, he denied it. Then I played the recording for him and he said it was what he believed and started yelling at me. Later that day, we released an apology statement to conference attendees about the incident and cancelled his second presentation. He never spoke for us again.
Conference Disclaimer Statement
Two of the women in the latter presentation went to our Board of Directors with their lawyers and demanded more than an apology statement. They threatened a harassment lawsuit against the organization. Eventually the lawyers for both sides worked out an agreement.
From that point forward, we began to put a disclaimer statement in our printed program, on our speakers’ handouts and PPTs, and in our emails. We realized that reviewing our speaker PPTs and handouts would take too much time.
Our disclaimer said (paraphrased):
The views and opinions expressed by speakers or others who have provided materials to and for this meeting are not necessarily those of Organization X. Organization X assumes no responsibility for, nor endorses, any of the comments, recommendations or materials that are provided.
If you want to use this disclaimer statement, check with your lawyer first.
We went one step further and made all of our speakers sign speaker guidelines about intellectual property, discrimination, harassment and racism. Here are some of the bullets, paraphrased for this post, that were included in the speaker guidelines:
- Use non-discriminatory words in verbal and written communications. Review your material and substitute asexual words such as sales representative or sales person instead of salesman. Refrain from using labels (e.g., referring to women as “girls”). Eliminate sexist language in your handouts (i.e., replace masculine pronouns with he or she, or reword sentences or phrases).
- Avoid discriminatory jokes (e.g., belittling a person’s sex, race, or age, or perpetuating a stereotype).
- Introduce panel members in a non-sexist manner. Avoid references to personal/physical attributes.
- Avoid visual aids that show people in stereotypical roles. Regardless of sex, race, age groups, etc., present individuals without bias.
Again, check with your organization’s lawyer first, if you want to use any of the above speaker guidelines.
How do you avoid racism, discrimination and offensive behavior from your speakers at your meetings? How do you ensure that your speaker lineup is diverse, representing many different views?