Analysis News

When networking goes too far

My #metoo encounter and advice from event professionals.

At a recent industry event, I found myself in the middle of an uncomfortable and highly distressing situation. I met a man at a networking function who continued to pursue me throughout the evening. Friendly gestures became long, lingering touches and, despite chatting about my recent nuptials, he insisted that I meet him later at the hotel bar.

When I didn’t show, a series of messages and calls ensued, followed by several calls to my hotel room. I ignored the calls and feared what might come next, a dreaded knock on my door. Luckily, it didn’t. The experience, however, was nonetheless intimidating.

This is why the #metoo movement is so important. It shines a spotlight on such inappropriate an unwanted behaviour. It’s been well over a year since #metoo gained traction around the world, with a large number of  women who have been subjected to sexual harassment coming forward to share their stories and raise awareness.

While many industry leaders are speaking out against sexual harassment in the workplace, this can be very difficult to manage at events, especially networking events.

Networking is an important part of doing business – after all, we are in the people business, where relationship building and meeting face-to-face are our raison d’etre.

After a long day of meetings or conferencing, it’s only natural that delegates want to let off a little steam, and networking events allow industry peers to make new connections in a more casual setting, or catch-up with friends over a drink.

Unfortunately, this relaxed setting can encourage inappropriate behaviour, where networking can very quickly become into sexual harassment.

Throughout his career, Daniel Chua, founder and CEO of Singapore-based experiential agency, Aonia Group, has managed events where attendees have crossed the line.

“We have always taken a professional approach to investigating incidents involving sexual harassment, avoiding judgment until facts are collected and clear,” he says. “We believe more in prevention and always brief event staff on what to avoid and what to do, including informing us as soon as any transgressions has occurred.”

He adds: “We advise all serving staff to slow the service and alert security where possible to move closer to the ‘action’. In some cases, we have informed their colleagues or even their superiors of such, as is expected of us. Such moves have helped.”

Chua says delegates who exhibit inappropriate behaviour are often “not too hard to spot”, but believes more can be done to increase awareness.

“As part of the development of our industry, making it clear that we do not stand for any sort of victimisation is important; building awareness is certainly part of that development.”

Josephine Lim, managing director for Southeast Asia at Preferred Hotels & Resorts, agrees.

“Here in Asia, more often than not, such incidents are swept under the rug as most victims are afraid of drawing what they perceive as ‘negative attention’ to themselves under these embarrassing situations,” she says. “Only by uniting in our support to end this basic human rights abuse can we give them the voice to be heard. 

“This issue has already seen some mitigation by forward-thinking companies and government initiatives here in Singapore, but it is an area where continuous dialogue is still needed to bring about positive change, not just for the events industry, but for society as a whole.”

Lim believes that keeping an open dialogue on sexual harassment, through targeted workshops and educational seminars, can help to elevate the conversation. “Organising events with greater gender parity in speaker panels and attendees may also help alleviate the possibility of such incidents occurring.”