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Wednesday Wisdom: Ethical Issues in Event Planning

If you’ve ever scoped out a Code of Ethics for professional event planners, you already know that there are a lot of issues worth keeping in mind no matter how much experience you have. But what you might not know is exactly what kind of gray area scenarios you can find yourself or your staff dealing with over time.

Here are the main ethical issues in event management you can expect to face at some point in your career – along with what to do if/when they happen! 

10 Common Event Planning Ethics & Etiquette Violations 

1. Not communicating with clients and partners in a timely manner

Falling behind on emails or texts isn’t a crime. But if you don’t respond to clients and partners in time, you run the risk of putting them in uncomfortable positions. 

Example Scenario: A vendor forwards you a proposal that is far more complicated than you anticipated, and your client is waiting to hear back about their budget limitations. You’re really busy and don’t get to the proposal for a few days. By that time, the vendor has accepted a competing offer and is no longer available. 

What To Do: You don’t have to stay glued to your inbox all hours of the day, but the average person returns a business email within 1.87 hours. So try to keep your replies to this time frame (during business hours). Or, if you’re super overwhelmed, at least let everyone know you received the message and plan to review it by a specific date/time.

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2. Fraudulent familiarization trips

Just because you scheduled this trip months ago doesn’t mean you get to snag a free vacation out of it once you’ve picked out your official event venue. 

Example Scenario: After much deliberation, you’re pretty sure you’re going to choose the local grand ballroom venue for the gala. But your FAM trip to New York is already paid for, so you consider keeping your decision to yourself and going anyway. You can always consider that venue for another event in the future, right? 

What To Do: Even if no one finds out, you’re actively using company resources for your own personal benefit. Be up-front with the financial decision-makers at your company – they may still let you go anyway! 

3. Using travel points from business trips for personal events

Like most ethical issues, this one is a little gray, especially if you’re forced to use your personal account for corporate expenses. 

Example Scenario: You’ve flown across the country twice this past year for work, and your vacation is fast approaching. You have enough airline and hotel points to upgrade your next trip to First Class or even a free night in a luxury suite. 

What To Do: Ask for your own spending account if your company offers it to employees. If they don’t, ask HR about their travel points policy. Again, there’s a good chance they’ll be fine with it, but it’s more ethical to ask for permission in these situations. 

ethical issues in event industry points

4. Bribing guests 

Awesome gift bags are part of the event experience, especially when you’re trying to land some new accounts or upgrade high paying clients to bigger, better packages. But are new iPhones and bottles of Chanel perfume considered a generous gift or a full-on bribe? 

Example Scenario: Your event sponsor wants to make an excellent impression by giving away $500 worth of their product to every attendee. They’ve asked you or your team to sort and hand out the gifts at the door. 

What To Do: The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics defines an appropriate gift as something that a guest will enjoy, but is not economically disproportionate to their profession’s average income level and is not considered unusual to receive at this type of event. Good rule of thumb: if you heard your favorite political candidate accepted that gift from a business of any kind, would it make you cringe? This issue is highly speculated in the public sphere but it also applies in the private one, too. 

5. Not being realistic about serious weather concerns

A little rain is one thing, but if you are planning an event in an area prone to wildfires, tornados, or some other sort of extreme weather, you need to build a bad weather plan into your event contracts and policies. 

Example Scenario: Planning a client event that takes place in an open, isolated field during wintertime in Northern Canada? If you know perfectly well that the weather at the event might cause possible discomfort, injury, or sickness to your event guests, you have to either guide the client toward a better option or cancel the event altogether. 

What To Do: Just because a client is willing to pay you for it doesn’t make it a good idea. No one likes to cancel or postpone an event they worked hard to plan, but guest health and safety comes first. When in doubt, do what is best for your guests, even if your client disagrees at first. 

6. Stealing event design ideas

Who doesn’t love perusing Pinterest for some event inspiration? Well, it turns out there’s a difference between inspo and theft, so you need to know what that is.

Example Scenario: You see a great design for an identical venue layout and copy everything you can find from the set up to the decor. 

What To Do: Event design is an art form and the artist should be respected. If you’re going to use their idea, make sure you put your own special twist on it to make it distinctly different. 

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7. Sharing criticisms instead of solutions

Turns out, being a negative Nancy in meetings and email threads is an ethical consideration for event planners. 

Example Scenario: Your client is trying to be helpful, but they keep coming up with impractical ideas for the event. You find yourself saying, “No” over and over again, getting frustrated every time, attempting to explain why their idea isn’t going to work out. You might even vent about it with one of your vendors. 

What To Do: It’s okay to occasionally, internally disagree with or be critical of clients and partners. It’s also okay to educate them on the issue. But every negative response should be followed up with a constructive alternative so that their original idea is still honored but in a more realistic way. And even though it’s tempting, do not share your frustrations with vendors or other team members – it puts you in a negative light! 

8. Making promises you know you can’t keep 

You’re an event planner, which makes you on par with literal superheroes. But even superheroes have their weaknesses. Trying to cover them up might lead to bigger issues down the road. 

Example Scenario: After a dry spell that felt like forever, your client roster is suddenly overflowing. Then you get another new opportunity – one that would only be possible if everything else was perfectly timed and nothing went wrong (a rarity in this industry). The money is great, so you take it anyway. You think it’ll be hard, but you’ll try to juggle it all. 

What To Do: Sometimes being overly optimistic about your own abilities comes at a price, which your clients will have to pay. Don’t be afraid to turn down work, just make sure you explain why you won’t be available. The care you show your current clients and partners will be sure to attract repeat business in the future

9. Undercutting your competition

Pricing for any industry that relies on freelancers is a tricky beast. You might see lowering your prices to attract more clients as a smart way of doing business, but it’s actually an event planning ethics disaster. 

Example Scenario: Your local competitor plans birthday parties, too. Since you’re just starting out, you decide to charge half of their advertised rate and start reaching out to clients they’ve worked with in the past to let them know a new, more affordable option is available. 

What To Do: Not only is this point an ethics issue, it’s actually illegal. Predatory pricing, as it’s called, is hard to prove in court, but that doesn’t mean they can’t. Instead, offer the going market rate for your services with perhaps a modest discount for first-time clients. 

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10. Not creating an inclusive, diverse team

Whether you’re expanding your in-house event planning staff or just your preferred local vendor list, diversity should be a top concern for your workplace. 

Example Scenario: After a recent string of event-related tasks (flipping through resumes, attending local career fairs, going to professional event planning networking events), you realize that everyone you met came from the same background, had the same look, and were largely a homogenous crowd. You’re ready to wrap up this networking marathon, so you figure it’s not your fault there weren’t more diverse people at the events. 

What To Do: Diversity and inclusion in the workforce isn’t just a good thing to do – it can actually help improve team decision making and create a more favorable business practice overall. Do your part by going outside of your routine to seek out opportunities to work with or meet people of different races, religions, and abilities than you. 

These 10 issues come up most frequently in the event industry. But there are a few worth mentioning that you might encounter one or twice during your career. 

ethical issues in event planning team

11 Surprising ethical event examples that might catch you off-guard

You may find yourself in one or more of the following situations:

  1. Lying about your skill set. Everyone pads their resume a little bit, but with professions like event planning where your skills are always being put to the test, it’s better to remain realistic than optimistic in this arena. 
  2. Abusing intellectual property. Double-check that your name or concept isn’t already taken during the preliminary planning stages so there are no legal surprises down the road. Also, don’t be afraid to own up to ripping off someone else’s idea – either get written permission from the creator or work with your client to find some left of center alternatives. 
  3. Blowing up at a difficult customer. As an event planner, your patience will be tested often. Even if a customer or event attendee is being inappropriate with you, it does not give you permission to be inappropriate to them. If they go overboard, though, don’t be afraid to defer to another event host or any legal authorities to protect yourself. 
  4. Harassing an event guest. If you wouldn’t speak or act a certain way at noon on a weekday in a well-lit open office space, don’t do it at an event in the evening where alcohol is being poured. In a nutshell: always be professional. 
  5. Choosing not to sign the requested NDA. Sometimes venue managers or celebrity assistants forget to send or request documents. But that doesn’t give you permission to. 
  6. Accepting inappropriate gifts. We’ve already covered giving them, but the same applies to getting them. 
  7. Paying off staff. In the heat of the moment, offering a staff member some extra cash on the side to save the day sounds like a good idea… until somebody doing the same job points out that they’d like to get paid the same amount, too. 
  8. Participating in activities that discredit your organization or partners. Keep your opinions about clients and partners to yourself in-person and online. Like mama always said, if you don’t have anything nice to say! 
  9. Not Reading Your Client’s Code of Ethics. If they have one, it’s part of your job to make sure you follow it. Even if it’s all repeat information. 
  10. Failing to address unethical behavior in others. Your sponsors, team, clients, vendors, and even guests are all a reflection on your and how your work as an event planner. Make sure everyone is representing you (and themselves, of course) the best they possibly can. 
  11. Asking event staff to wear inappropriate attire. Even if a client demands it, there really isn’t any reason to subject your staff to revealing or restrictive clothing choices. Offer more appropriate outfit alternatives or, better yet, skip it altogether. For the good of your event and the individuals in charge of making it run smoothly, this issue is well worth butting heads with your clients over. 

Everything You Need to Know About Ethical Issues in Event Planning

These situations are obvious on paper. But in the real world of everyday event planning, they can feel a little surreal to encounter and you might not be clear on what to actually do about them.

Which is why writing your own personal code of conduct or keeping lists like these handy will keep you on the straight and narrow no matter what curveballs the industry throws at you! 

For more on being the best event planner you can possibly be, check out these articles on: 

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