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The trappings of excess.

A hotel salesperson offers a meeting planner a car or some other expensive item if the

association decides to book its convention with that property. Should the planner accept the gift?

What about an offer of cash applied to the to the master account, which would defray the meeting's overall cost to attendees?

During a workshop at a recent ASA-E convention, 30 association executives grappled with determining guidelines for professional, ethical behavior. At the same time, in another workshop, two dozen associate members participating in a visioning effort listed as one of their major ideas "a leadership role for ASAE in setting and advocating standards of ethical practice."

Two sides of the market, in two different meetings, came to the same conclusion: Ethical standards merit further attention. Perhaps more than in any other industry, ethical choices are an inherent part of the life of an association executive.

When is a promotional program within the confines of market practice? When is it a bribe? If a promotional offer is legal, within the best interests of an association, and everyone does it, does that make it ethical? How do executives distinguish between personal values and the association's professional ethics?

Several common methods

Ethical situations elicit highly individual analyses. But executives often rely on one or more of the following approaches to evaluate and resolve ethical dilemmas:

The L.A. Law method that says, "If it's legal and no one gets hurt, it's ethical."

The "God is watching over us" technique that forces people to decide if it is for the good of mankind and morally justifiable to a higher source.

The MBA approach that seeks to conduct a logical evaluation of the facts to determine if any social or organizational rules or policies apply.

The CNN rule that asks, "If CNN news covered your story, would your family feel proud of your decision;"

The professional approach that says, "We have an obligation to our society as professionals."

While consensus is fairly easy to reach on general evaluation principles, it becomes difficult when attempts are made to identify specific parameters. For example, most executives agree that meeting planners should not accept gifts that exceed a certain value. Consensus vanishes, however, when the challenge is to agree on a specific dollar value.

While black-and-white answers to ethical questions remain elusive, reviewing workshop discussions concerning various ethical situations that arise in the areas of meeting planning and travel may both help association executives face future challenges and ethically sensitize" the profession.

Guest-room rebates

After reviewing the association's convention budget, the board directs the meeting planner to do a better job of controlling costs. During negotiations, the planner shares this mandate with the hotel, which offers to supply transportation for an extra charge in the room rate or a rebate to the master account. Building transportation into the room rates will save the association transportation costs, but members pick up that cost when they pay for their rooms.

Does the association have an ethical obligation to inform members of this arrangement? Answering the question is far from simple.

Workshop attendees offered various justifications for accepting the offer. Thoughts ranged from "It's all right if you tell them in the brochure" to "It's not necessary to tell them, and we never do." (Some states, such as California, may require this disclosure by law.)

An optimum package. They agreed it is the meeting planner's job to produce the optimum total package for the association and its members. Accepting the hotel's offer would achieve this goal because it reduces the total conference budget. In addition, the meeting planner has secured a reduced room rate (group rate) for attendees.

However, adding a charge to room rates to cover transportation does make it the responsibility of attendees to pay for transportation. Many association executives said it would be important to disclose this information to members. They deemed mentioning it in the brochure sufficient. Drawing attention to the arrangement with more detail would give greater weight to the issue than warranted in light of the many items included in a conference brochure.

Other association executives argued that they did not have any obligation to inform attendees of the transportation charges, reasoning that details are not given on how food and beverage, entertainment, or breakout rooms are budgeted and allocated. To do so would not only be unnecessary and confusing to the attendee, but also would potentially trigger requests for complete and detailed breakdowns of all costs.

The general consensus seemed to be that it is an ethical practice provided the specific charges to the room are clearly stated in the brochure.

Air rates

A board meeting is in Chicago. Two flight options are available: An earlier flight costs $600 and a later flight, $480. Is choosing the higher-fare flight ethical @ Association executives were divided in their answers. Most felt an obligation to take the lower fare as long as the timing didn't affect professional performance.

Other attendees pointed out, however, that cost alone is not the only factor to consider. If the lower-fare flight arrives in Chicago at midnight versus 10 p.m. for the higher-fare flight, and the meeting is at 8 a.m., an executive would be justified in choosing the earlier flight to ensure top performance.

Another viewpoint held by some attendees was that executives often travel on their personal time for which they are not frequently compensated. Since the extra cost of an earlier flight was not prohibitive, taking the most convenient flight did not violate any professional ethics.

The stopover practice. Another common airfare-related dilemma concerns the opportunity to substantially cut travel costs by booking round-trip tickets with stopovers instead of a direct flight to a particular destination. An executive simply gets off and on at the stopover city even though the practice is against airline policy and ethically wrong.

But what about the executive's fiduciary responsibility to save the association money? Many executives who allow stopover flights to be booked viewed this as their primary obligation even though they also felt they were cheating the airlines. Other attendees did not view the practice as illegal, but rather as a loophole in airline policy that the industry itself needed to address. Another viewpoint was that the airlines still benefit from stopover booking, because they get paid for the seat and they have a policy of overbooking.

Many of the opinions led to a discussion of the difference between ethical and legal behavior and the economic impact of the dilemma. For example, just because it may not be illegal, does that make it ethical? Do substantial cost savings justify endorsement of a questionable practice?

Frequent-flier points. One final dilemma concerning air travel concerns the ownership of frequent-flier points. Many corporations and associations today stipulate that all frequent traveler points are the organization's property: The organization paid for the tickets, and free trips represent a rebate to the organization. Many association executives contend, however, that since they frequently travel during personal time and are on the road a great deal, frequent-flier points are a perk of the job and should belong to the individual making the trips.

Unethical behavior

An association has narrowed the selection of bids to two cities. The CEO tells the meeting planner to ask the bureau of one of the cities to get complimentary weekend accommodations for the volunteer president and family. What should the meeting planner do? Unfortunately, this type of situation apparently happens all the time, according to bureau representatives. While association executives agreed the request is unethical, they differed on how to resolve the dilemma.

Many said they would refer the CEO to association policies and guideline prohibiting such behavior. In the absence of such guidelines, some participants would explain the problem to the CEO.

Still others would request the accommodations after apologizing to the bureau: If they want to keep their jobs, it's something they have to do. Besides, they pointed out, such requests come as no surprise to bureau representatives, who admit they themselves have extended such offers when competing with other destinations for business.

Giveaways. Another frequently encountered situation concerns the offer of free gifts from vendors. It's generally accepted that suppliers need to create an impact with prospects and that giveaways are one way to achieve this. At what point, however, does the giveaway become more of a bribe than a legitimate sales technique.?

Some associations explicitly prohibit the acceptance of any gift, while others limit the monetary value of a gift. Still others have no established policies. Many associations, which contend accepting a gift is acceptable as long as it doesn't benefit one specific person, use gifts they receive as prizes for staff at parties. Reflecting the ethical confusion surrounding this issue, most association executives expressed the need for guidelines establishing an appropriate level of gift.

Breaking a contract

A convention that has been booked in a city for years is around the corner. The community makes a decision not to support a particular political issue. The association votes to cancel the contract to protest the decision.

A standard clause in the association's contract states that if the country is in a state of war, it has the right to cancel the contract with no penalty. At the time in question, the United States is officially at war with Iraq. Should the association invoke this section of the contract allowing cancellation at no costs, cancel and pay the cancellation fees, or honor the contract?

Much like the other dilemmas presented in the workshop session, this situation generated heated discussion on all fronts. Some argued that a contract is a contract: The association signed the contract in good faith and should not be looking for ways to duck out. A legal loophole doesn't make no-fault cancellation ethical. Plus the cancellation fee is designed to protect both parties and not as a loophole for terminating the contract.

Attendees also raised the issue that the industry is always talking about how the association executive and the vendor need to be partners in the profession. Yet this kind of behavior runs counter to that belief.

The flip side of this argument was represented by those who believe "contracts are made to be broken." If you can legally break the contract, and that might include paying the cancellation fee, there is no ethical dilemma.

Proponents of this theory contended the greater dilemma might be holding a meeting in an area that has voted on an issue to which the membership is ethically opposed, which would put members in a position where they are economically supporting an opposing viewpoint.

Fam trips

An executive director of an association in New York is very active in the association community. Several off-shore destinations have extended an invitation to participate in their fam trips. The association's bylaws require all meetings to be held in the state. Should the CEO accept the offer.

Fam trips have been a favorite topic of debate for years. Yet there is still a great deal of divergence on the subject. Executives participating in the workshop said most of their organizations had policies specifying that they should accept only if the destination is under consideration and if there is a business reason to attend.

The primary issue is whether it is ethical to accept an invitation when you have no intention of bringing a meeting to that location. Almost everyone agreed it was unethical to accept in this situation.

An exception to this rule is when the destination knows you have no chance of booking a meeting and still wants you to attend because of your visibility in the association community. It would be unethical, however, not to file for personal time with your employer if such a fam trip was conducted during the week.

Moving toward unity

Given the lingering confusion surrounding ethical issues confronting the association community, some executives cite the need for a formal code of ethics that specifically spells out accepted procedures and practices.

Attendees acknowledged that such an initiative would likely encounter legal and other obstacles. Does an association, for example, want to open itself up to potential lawsuits by those who challenge the code@ If a member is found to be in violation of the code, how will enforcement be carried out; What legal situations may develop if expulsion is deemed the appropriate response?

The group did reach agreement on a definition for ethical behaviors: "a set of accepted moral standards that guide a specific profession or group."

Given the nature of ethical debate, however, this definition will undoubtedly be a point of argument as well in the ongoing pursuit of consensus.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:guidelines for professional and ethical behavior of meeting planners
Author:Lee, Hugh K.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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