Monday, March 23, 2015

Disruptive behaviour and harassment at training events and how to deal with it

Not so long ago, when I was writing a risk register at work, I realised we needed some guidelines for dealing with disruptive, bullying or harassing behaviour when running training events.

I can think of several occasions - mercifully few, but they have occurred - in the past when having a clearer process for reporting and managing disruption would have been helpful. And while I've never had a case of harassment or bullying reported at an event I've been involved in running, I'd feel much better knowing I had a process in place to deal with them if they ever arose. 

Improvising a response to a serious issue on the fly when a thousand and one other things could be demanding your attention is a stretch. Perhaps a stretch too far.

So, here's a beta version of the guidelines I've drafted - feel free to comment or indeed use them at your own events - none of this is organisation-specific.

Credit where credit's due - they are based on a template conference anti-harassment policy from the Geek Feminism wiki. The original is definitely worth checking out, especially if you are looking to run a larger event. I also cribbed some definitions from our own HR policy library.

So, here we go.

Guidance on dealing with disruptive, bullying or harassing behaviour when running training events (beta version)

Please note that children, young people (17 and under) and vulnerable adults at events are governed by our safeguarding policy. So, while these guidelines may be helpful when considering these groups, the safeguarding policy should always take precedence.


Disruptive behaviour

For the purposes of this guidance, disruptive behaviour is defined as defined as behaviours that hamper the ability of people to participate in and learn from sessions at a training event, or the ability of facilitators to successfully coordinate the event.


Bullying is any persistent behaviour, action or conduct, directed against someone, which is intimidating, offensive or abusive, and which may undermine their confidence and self-esteem. 

Bullying could include:

  • Verbal or physical threats or intimidation 
  • Humiliating someone in front of others 
  • Unjustified, persistent criticism 
  • Offensive or abusive personal remarks 
  • Isolating or excluding someone 
  • Belittling someone’s opinion 
  • Making false allegations 

It is important to state what does not constitute bullying. Legitimate, constructive and fair criticism of an organisation, a campaign, staff or elected officers is not in itself bullying. An occasional raised voice or argument is not bullying. 


Harassment is any action, conduct or behaviour found unwelcome, intimidating, upsetting, offensive, embarrassing or humiliating by the person affected. It can be open or covert. It is important to be aware that it is the impact of the action, conduct or behaviour which is relevant, and not the motive or intent behind it.   

Harassment could include:

  • Verbal comments that reinforce social structures of domination (related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, age, religion etc.)
  • Sexual images in public spaces
  • Deliberate intimidation
  • Stalking and following
  • Harassing photography or recording
  • Sustained disruption of talks or other events
  • Inappropriate physical contact
  • Unwelcome sexual attention
  • Enforcing ground-rules

Event Organiser

The person or persons responsible for the overall coordination of the event.

Event Team

The core group of people running the event.


It’s important to remember that ground-rules – collectively agreed to – effectively form the first line of defence against disruption, harassment and bullying at an event. It's therefore important to ensure your ground-rules make clear a commitment to 'safe space' and harassment and bullying-free events.

While these reminders will not be an issue for the vast majority of participants, we know that some people do need acceptable and unacceptable behaviour spelled out precisely. Some people, including some of those who find basic social interaction stressful, may welcome a concrete list of unacceptable behaviours so they can be more confident that they will not accidentally violate an unwritten rule.

So, as a starting point, it’s crucial that the ground-rules are introduced, agreed to and regulated over the course of the training event. 

Generally, a friendly reminder of the ground-rules should suffice to deal with any one-time minor breaches of the ground-rules. 

But there will be times – particularly cases of bullying or harassment - when a breach is sufficiently serious and/or repeated often enough that action will need to be taken by the event organiser or facilitators. This may lead to further action after the event by the responsible decision-makers.

Warnings to participants

Any member of the Event Team can issue a verbal warning to a participant that their behaviour violates the ground-rules if there are repeated or serious breaches. Warnings should be reported verbally to the Event Organiser as soon as practical. 

The verbal report should include:

  • Participant’s name
  • The time you issued the warning
  • The behaviour that was in violation
  • The approximate time of the behaviour (if different than the time of warning)
  • Other people involved in the incident

The Event Organiser should record this information in an incident log for future reference if possible.

Presenters breaching ground-rules

Presentations or similar events should not be stopped for one-time gaffes or minor problems by the presenter, although a member of the Event Team should speak to them afterward. However, Team members should take immediate action to politely and calmly suspend or stop any presentation or event with behaviour that repeatedly or seriously violates the ground-rules. 

Taking reports

When taking a report from someone experiencing harassment or bullying you should record what they say and reassure them they are being taken seriously, but avoid making specific promises about what actions the organizers will take. 

Ask for any other information if the reporter has not volunteered it (such as time, place) but do not pressure them to provide it if they are reluctant. Even if the report lacks important details such as the identity of the person taking the harassing actions, it should still be recorded and passed along to the Event Organiser.

If the reporter desires it, arrange for an escort by the Event Team or a trusted person, contact a friend, and contact local law enforcement. Do not pressure the reporter to take any action if they do not want to do it. Respect the reporter's privacy by not sharing unnecessary details with others, especially individuals who were not involved with the situation.


A participant may be expelled from the event by the decision of the Event Organiser for whatever reasons they deem sufficient. However, here are some general guidelines for when a participant should be expelled:

  • A further offense following a warning from the Event Team.
  • Continuing to harass or bully after any "No" or "Stop" instruction
  • A pattern of harassing or bullying behaviour, with or without warnings
  • A single serious offense (e.g., punching or groping someone)
  • A single obviously intentional offense (e.g., taking up-skirt photos)

Public statements

As a general rule, the Event Team should not make any public statements about the behaviour of individual people during or after the conference.

In general, consult with other staff members when possible but act when necessary.

After the event

Any warnings or expulsions should be communicated by the Event Organiser to a responsible decision-maker or collective body (e.g. a manager, group decision-making processes) to consider further action.

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