There was a quiet moment of realization that I took away from MPI’s MeetDifferent conference in Atlanta.
One of the Monday morning breakouts was an Unconference session, where participants facilitated table conversations on the topics of their choice. As part of the coverage we were producing for MPI, I sat down at a table discussion on the emerging concept of Meeting Architecture.
Discussion began with a participant describing some of the challenges she faced in her meetings department. Her issues were familiar to any planner who’s ever sought a seat at the table in organizational decisions, and the group did what we always do as meeting professionals: they jumped in with ideas, suggestions, strategies to help our newfound colleague maximize the impact of her meetings and her own value to her organization.
Then I glanced over at her name badge, and my heart froze.
It turned out that she worked for a tobacco company. Which meant we were offering helpful professional advice to an industry whose deliberately addictive product causes severe illness, wrenching misery, and premature death when used as directed. (Almost four months ago, I blogged about my mother’s death. I didn’t mention that her lung cancer was almost certainly caused by 40 years of smoking.)
This wasn’t about the individual colleague. Her knowledge and skills are portable, and it’s hard to stand in judgement of the opportunities, coincidences, or imperatives that shape anyone else’s career choices.
But I did make a conscious decision not to enter the conversation, and if I’m not mistaken, I wasn’t alone. (At any other conference, it would have been a moot point: MPI is one of the very few client events where anyone on our team has membership status, and it’s an iron-clad rule that we never participate or intervene in any other meeting we cover.)
My moment of clarity brought home a point that we often miss when we extol the value and the power of meetings. Apart from the occasional ethical screen—our firm declared 25 years ago that we would never work for a tobacco company—meeting professionals take it for granted that we do good works by doing good work. That Monday morning conversation reminded me that it ain’t necessarily so.
The core of this issue is that our industry seeks to excel in process skills, while studiously avoiding any judgement on or (usually) involvement in content. Which means there will be horrifying moments when we realize that the harm we do is directly proportional to how well we do our jobs. The better we are, the worse it gets.
This topic is, quite clearly, a very slippery slope, since one person’s ethical bottom line may be someone else’s positive choice. As a society, we have not chosen to ban smoking or shut down tobacco manufacturing, and there are cultures that might consider us crazy if we tried.
But as our industry haltingly embraces corporate social responsibility (CSR), there will be moments—quiet or not—when we each see the need or the opportunity to decide which side we’re on. We may each come to different conclusions at different times, but there is tremendous power and importance in the deciding.