Events

Anti-Harassment Policy? Not at Our Hotel!

As the representative Chicagoan here at Skepchick, I was pretty excited a couple months ago when we were contacted by the new Chicago geek convention Chi-Fi. Chi-Fi’s programming director loved our Skepchick/FTB track at CONvergence and invited us to attend Chi-Fi in Chicago in March 2014. It was too late to plan an entire skepticism track, but many of the Skepchicks were going to make the trek out to Chicago and we were planning to have our own events and join panels and generally have a great time enjoying Chi-Fi.  Although we hadn’t mentioned it yet here on Skepchick, word spread quickly among the skeptic organizations in Chicago and there were a lot of locals excitedly waiting for March to have all the Skepchicks descend upon their city and to enjoy the festivities of Chi-Fi.

One of the big draws for us in attending Chi-Fi was their very detailed Harassment Policy featured prominently on their website which begins with the following:

Chi-Fi is dedicated to providing a safe and comfortable convention experience for everyone. Harassment of any kind, including verbal assault, physical assault, battery, deliberate intimidation, stalking, or unwelcome physical attentions, will not be tolerated. If people tell you “no” or to leave them alone, your business with them is done. Leave them alone. Do not follow them or attempt to disrupt their convention experience in any way. If you continue to attempt to have contact with those people, you may be removed from the premises.

It only gets better from there. Chi-Fi’s harassment policy is clear and explicit in exactly what constitutes harassment, who must abide by the harassment policy (hint: everyone), what to do if you are harassed, and what they will do to someone who is harassing others. It’s a great policy and one that assured us that going to Chi-Fi would be a safe and comfortable experience just as their policy states. It’s one of the big reasons that we decided to attend and support the con, so you can imagine my bewilderment on Tuesday when I saw this tweet by John Scalzi:

Unfortunately at the time, Scalzi’s tweet crashed Chi-Fi’s servers, so over at Skepchick HQ we were left confused and concerned about the fate of Chi-Fi. It turns out we were right to be concerned because once Chi-Fi got their website back up they had posted the following statement:

We regret to inform you that Chi-Fi 2014 will not be taking place at the Westin Chicago River North as planned. After several meetings with the staff of the Westin, we had concerns about the ability of their staff to create a welcoming and accepting atmosphere towards our attendees. A senior Westin employee referred to our staff, attendees, and guests as “freaks,” and hotel staff expressed their disapproval of our anti-harassment policy.

Wait….what?? A hotel employee calling the Chi-Fi attendees “freaks” is rude and unnecessary and shows a lack of respect for their customers. Even worse though is the statement that the Westin “expressed disapproval” of Chi-Fi’s anti-harassment policy. What could the Westin possibly have disapproved of?

Luckily one of my favorite local reporters Lizzie Shiffman was on the case. She contacted the Westin for their side of the story, following which they posted this statement on their Facebook page:

Providing a hospitable, welcoming environment is the essence of our business, and The Westin Chicago River North is extremely disappointed in the false claims being made by Chi-Fi Con.  Our team worked diligently to accommodate this group booking, and we never objected to the organization, its attendees or the anti-harassment policy. After much discussion, Chi-Fi Con asked to be allowed out of their contract when it became clear that mutual needs could not be met, and we agreed. We are disappointed that we were unable to resolve the situation.

This is a confusing statement by the Westin. They claim that they “never objected” to Chi-Fi’s anti-harassment policy and yet they also make it clear that there were disagreements between them and the con, though what these disagreements may have been remains a mystery. What exactly is the “situation” that they were unable to resolve if it wasn’t over the staff’s statements about Chi-Fi attendees and the con’s anti-harassment policy? It’s odd that the Westin would deny everything Chi-Fi said about them but then fail to offer any alternative for the events that have taken place.

Shiffman’s article at DNAChicago did a good job in interviewing the organizers of Chi-Fi and allowing them to elaborate a little bit about the “freak” comment by the Westin, but had little information about what part of the harassment policy the hotel may have disagreed with. My original thought was that perhaps the hotel felt that they did not have the resources to enforce the policy or something along those lines. I contacted Lizzie Shiffman on twitter to see if she had any more details that were not in her article and she offered the following:

This was later confirmed by the Chi-Fi organizer James Dodd on the con Facebook Page

"[The Westin] objected to the existence of the policy and the fact that it would apply to them."

If this is true, it is absolutely appalling that the Westin feels that their staff would not be able to abide by Chi-Fi’s harassment policy. Just to be especially clear, all of the following acts are considered harassment under Chi-Fi’s policy:

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, or dress, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

So Westin Chicago River North, which of these acts exactly do you feel your staff should be allowed to engage in against your hotel guests? Which of these acts were you so upset about having to prevent your employees from doing that you willingly dissolved a contract worth over $100,000?

The only good news to come out of this whole debacle is that Chi-Fi has contacted Skepchick again and after apologizing about the canceling of this year’s event, they invited us to come back for Chi-Fi 2015 and possibly even have an entire science and skepticism track similar to the one at SkepchickCON/CONvergence. This is seriously exciting news. I mean, SkechickCON is already the greatest event ever, so imagine what SkepchickagoCON* will look like?

*No…we don’t need to keep that ridiculous name but I just made it up and am proud of my creation. You’re Welcome English Language!

Also, for those of you in or near Chicago, Chi-Fi may have canceled this year’s con but they are still going to have a 1-day event in on March 29th so make sure you’re staying up-to-date on their website, facebook page and twitter for more info.

UPDATE: Beth pointed out in the comments that Geek Malange has an incredibly detailed post on all the reporting on the Chi-Fi cancellation. If you want any more details about the cancellation or Chi-Fi’s disagreements with the Westin or the hotel’s response, definitely read her post on it, which she has been continually updating as new information comes in.

Also, Chi-Fi’s Programming Director Anne Elliot weighed in in the comments with a couple more details. As for what the hotel’s issue with the anti-harassment policy was, she tells us “I was present in the meeting with hotel senior staff who expressed concern over our No Harassment Policy. The hotel staff seemed to believe that the fact that we had a policy was an indication that there was something wrong with our attendees and/or guests.”

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. You can usually find her at skeptic events in Chicago or on Twitter or Flickr. She also blogs about music at Notes From Chicago Music Underground.

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33 Comments

  1. January 16, 2014 at 12:54 pm —

    This story is appalling. Thanks for sharing, Jamie.

    Also, “SkepchickagoCON” is my new favorite word.

  2. January 16, 2014 at 1:24 pm —

    More, erm, “goodies” here: The Geek Melange: Dear Westin Chicago River North: You Have Chosen… Poorly

    Also: SkepchickagoCON = Skepchickcamp TIMES A JILLION.

  3. January 16, 2014 at 1:35 pm —

    I have no doubt Chi-Fi’s was well-intentioned, but the Westin Hotel in Chicago has gone on record in the press denying that they disapproved of the Chi-Fi fans or the harassment policy. They also stated to the press that Dobbs (the Chi-Fi organizer) was the one who asked to withdraw from the agreement to host the event there. Westin has publicly stated that Dobbs has “made false statements” in regard to this matter. Westin is a Union hotel, and I can easily see how they would not risk violating their collective bargaining agreement with staff by forcing them to sign off on Chi-Fi’s policy. That is simply prudent for the hotel and not a judgement on Chi-Fi or their policy. I’m here in Chicago and I can tell you that Dobbs is presenting one story and the hotel is presenting another. In the way things are being presented here in the Chicago coverage, I would not be so quick to assign blame on the hotel.

    • January 16, 2014 at 3:17 pm —

      Are you just boilerplate copypasta-ing this comment? Because you’ve said EXACTLY the same thing over at PZ’s post about this issue and there’s another “Nicholas” on the Chicagoist’s post about it who has been evincing the same obtuseness in grasping the issue. I’m just going to link here to my response to your post on PZ’s place as it’s not worth it to repeat here. And if you’re the same “Nicholas” on the Chicagoist thread, you had your ass handed to you on a platter there after repeatedly begging the question.

      Jamie – thanks for covering this. And thanks, BonnieBeth, for linking to the article I wrote when the news broke and have been continually updating. It now has video from both the AM and PM local Fox News affiliate’s coverage of this story. Pertinently, while the Westin Chicago River North’s initial FB responses stated that Chi-Fi Con was making “false claims” about why the contract was dissolved, they later eliminated that comment from the response they provided to Fox News for the AM segment, which was otherwise identical to their FB responses. The Fox reporters read the Westin’s statement on-air in the AM segment. Dobbs also stated in the AM news segment that the con organizers had written documentation of their complaint to Starwood about the event planner’s actions, and that there was no denial or dispute from Starwood regarding the event planner’s actions, and actually confirmation that the GM also shared the event planner’s viewpoint.

      Looking at all the available information, it seems that the core issue was that the Westin’s event planner and GM held a negative view of the con being at the hotel, apparently thinking “costumed freaks” were not in keeping with the “Four Seasons atmosphere” they wanted to create. Dobbs told me that had the hotel not had such a negative attitude toward the con’s presence, he and the organizers would have worked hard to clarify and address any “concerns” the hotel may have had about the con’s harassment policy. What those concerns were haven’t been specified aside from Dobbs’s statement that the hotel “didn’t like” that they had one in the first place, but I would hazard a guess that it was due to a number of factors, such as the hotel not being aware that harassment policies are becoming industry standard, wondering what the con would require from the hotel specifically in terms of support & implementation for the policy, thinking that the con having a policy meant that it had a “harassment problem”… any number of problematic assumptions that those of us who’ve been pushing for comprehensive, properly implemented con harassment policies are well-acquainted with. It’s extremely disappointing and frustrating that the hotel had “concerns” over an event having an anti-harassment policy in the first place, but I’m not surprised, sadly.

      So had the hotel been open and not negative toward the con, Chi-Fi would very likely have been able to work with the hotel to alleviate concerns about the harassment policy. But since the hotel demonstrated that it wasn’t going to be a hospitable place at all, the con organizers decided it was best to pull the plug, which precluded any efforts to work on those “concerns.” I continue to salute the Chi-Fi organizers for putting the safety and comfort of their con attendees, staff and guests ahead of the need to make the con happen.

      • January 16, 2014 at 3:56 pm —

        Apologies, I seem to have left a tag open. That last link should have gone <a href="http://chicagoist.com/2014/01/15/chi-fiasco_con_cancels_with_westin.php#comment-1202477648&quot;?here.

      • January 16, 2014 at 4:13 pm —

        I don’t know how I didn’t see your post on this last night when I was writing this up and searching for more info. It is so detailed! I’m definitely going to add a link to it at the bottom of my post as soon as I get home tonight.Thanks for cobbling together all the various pieces of information about this whole debacle in one place.

        • January 16, 2014 at 4:49 pm —

          You’re welcome, Jamie. Please feel free. I’m going to be doing a follow up with thoughts about how this unfortunately seemed to reignite some of the more frustrating discussions about the necessity and function of harassment policies at cons, too. I’ll put a link to that new post at the bottom of the current one, which, for now, I think is done with updates!

      • January 16, 2014 at 4:31 pm —

        “What those concerns were haven’t been specified aside from Dobbs’s statement that the hotel “didn’t like” that they had one in the first place, but I would hazard a guess that it was due to a number of factors, such as the hotel not being aware that harassment policies are becoming industry standard, wondering what the con would require from the hotel specifically in terms of support & implementation for the policy, thinking that the con having a policy meant that it had a “harassment problem”…”

        Forgive me. But, you are right here making a guess. I do not mean to antagonize, but this is a site for skeptics, no? Is it so outrageous to ask for a bit more than your guess?

        • January 16, 2014 at 4:55 pm —

          You just got your ass handed to you for spamming the same inane comment all over the internet, and now you just want to pretend that didn’t happen while you spam more concern trolling?

          Forgive me. But, you can fuck right off.

        • January 16, 2014 at 7:48 pm —

          Sure, what makes more sense is that Chi-Fi decided that they didn’t want to hold there con this year, went to the hotel to ask to get out of their agreement, the hotel allowed them to, Chi-Fi then immediately decided to go to the media to complain that the hotel that just let them out of their agreement was saying shit about their attendants. Yeah, seems legit.

    • January 16, 2014 at 3:30 pm —

      Right, because what reason would they have to lie?

  4. January 16, 2014 at 3:05 pm —

    Thank you, Jamie, for a great article. Chi-Fi is very excited to have to Skepchicks at Chi-Fi 2015. LOL…I think “SkepchickagoCon” might need to be the name for our skepticism track. I was present in the meeting with hotel senior staff who expressed concern over our No Harassment Policy. The hotel staff seemed to believe that the fact that we had a policy was an indication that there was something wrong with our attendees and/or guests. Frankly, I was just appalled that in this day and age, when nearly every company has some version of an anti-harassment policy, that it would have raised any issue at all. I didn’t even know how to respond to that. This was only one more piece of evidence that led us to believe that the culture of this hotel was not a good fit for our event. -Chi-Fi Vice Chair and Director of Programming

    • January 16, 2014 at 3:19 pm —

      Hi Anne. That’s just terrible, but not… surprising, and essentially what I had supposed was the issue. Do you mind if I quote from this in the follow up article I’m writing?

    • January 16, 2014 at 4:22 pm —

      It is appalling that the Westin would consider an anti-harassment policy a sign that harassment might happen. Do they think that the lack of a policy would actually decrease harassment (though if the amount of harassment is measured by “reported harassment,” not having a policy in place on what constitutes harassment and how to report it certainly will make the numbers go down)? It sounds like they just had absolutely no respect for the con or its attendees. If they’re against all anti-harassment policies they are going to find it increasingly difficult to get any conventions at their hotel. It is becoming standard for cons in all subject areas including professional conventions to have harassment policies in place.

  5. January 16, 2014 at 4:14 pm —

    I am curious. If Westin does indeed have a CBA with it’s employees that precludes it from agreeing to Chi-Fi’s stated harassment policy, how would Chi-Fi respond? That is a legitimate question. Westin cannot override it’s CBA (a legally binding agreement) with it’s own staff without risking union consequences. That would seem to be a real dilemma. I ask this in earnest. As I too find it difficult to believe that the Westin would turn it’s nose up at such a potentially profitable opportunity over image for an event that would have covered just a couple of days. I prefer to think there is more to this than Westin not liking Chi-Fi.

    • January 16, 2014 at 4:33 pm —

      Nicolas, I would reply that I don’t understand what they mean about union consequences, because from the start we were told that the Westin Chicago River North was a non-union hotel. And of course if they had conflicting policies we would work with them. But that issue never came up.

      • January 16, 2014 at 4:39 pm —

        Kinda hard to work with people who’ve already apparently come to the table viewing you as “freaks” who apparently are so terrible they need a harassment policy in place, I’d say.

    • January 16, 2014 at 4:48 pm —

      IF the Westing have a CBA? Are you guessing? I thought you were against guessing:
      “Forgive me. But, you are right here making a guess. I do not mean to antagonize, but this is a site for skeptics, no? Is it so outrageous to ask for a bit more than your guess?”

      Seriously though, “I prefer to think there is more to this than Westin not liking Chi-Fi.” is literally wishful thinking. Stop speculating. You want anyone to join you on the “there’s more to it” side, go look for some actual evidence.

      • January 16, 2014 at 4:54 pm —

        “Forgive me. But, you are right here making a guess. I do not mean to antagonize, but this is a site for skeptics, no? Is it so outrageous to ask for a bit more than your guess?”

        Hyperskepticism != skepticism. You already stated that you “prefer to think that there is more to this than the Westin not liking Chi-Fi.” Everything you’ve stated has been based on this preference, and you’ve been ignoring the vast amount of responses demonstrating that this is, in fact, about THIS Westin not liking Chi-Fi, because of that preference. That’s called confirmation bias. Good skeptics? They’re aware of their own biases and work to not let it get in the way of evidence they don’t like.

      • January 16, 2014 at 7:12 pm —

        Members of UNITE HERE Local 1 work at Westin Chicago River North. (Keep in mind that this may or may not mean that all WCRN employees are necessarily represented by any agreement between the hotel and the union.) The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union formed in 1891, and merged with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees in 2004 to form UNITE HERE. (yay acronyms!) While the union withdrew from the AFL-CIO for a few years, they are currently affiliated with both the CLC (Canadian Labour Congress) and the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations).

        It looks like their settlement may have expired with the year, and I’m not sure how to find out what the details of any CBA might be, but there’s something to start with. Thank goodness for Teh Googles!

    • January 16, 2014 at 5:06 pm —

      “I am curious.”

      Bullshit. You’re nothing of the sort. You’re writing the same crap over and over and over again all over the internet without paying attention to any of the responses. Axe grinding is precisely the opposite of curiosity.

      “I prefer to think…”

      Exactly. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, you prefer to think these things.

  6. January 16, 2014 at 4:44 pm —

    Nicholas I am baffled as to why you keep having this EXACT same conversation over and over on a multitude of sites. You keep insisting there was some legally binding agreement preventing Westin from abiding by the agreement, which has NEVER ONCE been stated and is completely from the fiction of your brain. You keep insisting that you are asking “legit” questions, when really your positing hypotheticals (ie: union consequences, legal concerns, etc) that have never once been mentioned by either party. You have had multiple members of the con organization speak as to what ACTUALLY happened and was said, and yet for some reason you CAN NOT GET IT THROUGH YOUR SKULL. The Westin parent corp had absolutely NO issues with Chi-Fi’s con, policies, or theme. They worked with the con prior to the specific location being selected and then handed off the detail planning to the individual location, which is where things went awry. You consistently keep trying to de-rail the issue at hand, which is that specific members of the management and event planning team at that Westin location treated the con organizers with disrespect, condescension, and out-right rudeness based on their stereotyped ideas of a science fiction con and those who would be attending. At NO POINT has anyone actually involved in the meetings said there were legal issues at stake with adhering to the harassment policy, including Wesin AND con organizers. So, how about instead of spamming every single blog and article about this topic with the same set of completely unfounded and unsupported guesswork that you keep throwing out, you sit down and pay attention to what is actually being said. You “find it too difficult to believe” that this could actually come down to a case of discrimination and terrible diplomacy. Unfortunately for you, it might be time to widen the scope of your consciousness to understand that’s exactly what is being said is the case by the parties actually involved.

    • January 16, 2014 at 10:32 pm —

      I’d really like to know who “Nicholas” is and why they’re trying so damn hard to spin this issue in such a weird way. Why are they tracking a relatively minor local story so closely? Why would they invent this crazy nonsense? This obsession a bit suspicious.

      • January 19, 2014 at 2:27 am —

        .The minute people start noticing suspicious behavior, he couldn’t crawl back into the shadows fast enough.

        • January 20, 2014 at 1:33 pm —

          No, I’m still here and have nothing to hide. I post on Chicagoist often and other places too. I found this story interesting for the same reason others stated — we have a lot of Cons here in Chicago, and it seems very odd a hotel would discourage one because they don’t like the image they present. (Heck, I work near the Hyatt, which host the International Leatherman Con — a bondage and leather convention). I wondered if we were getting the whole story.

          I see some of my concerns were shared by others, who have more info on the story. For example:
          http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2014/01/pushing-fannish-buttons-chi-fi-vs-westin-river-north-hotel-chicago/

          • January 20, 2014 at 1:59 pm

            I see others below have also linked to this story. Sorry, I didn’t see that. And, as for my arguments regarding the supposed disagreement with Chi-FI’s harassment policy, I now see that was not apparently at issue. OK, of that I am glad. But, from the situation as described on the Amazing Stories it is also rather different from the hotel suggesting “an anti-harassment policy a sign that harassment might happen.” I suggested the hotel could have a problem with that policy and it’s CBA. That, as it turns out, was not the issue, but the disagreement was rather different from how Dobbs first described it to the press. I have no agenda — I argue with everyone at Chicagoist.

      • January 20, 2014 at 3:17 pm —

        To answer your questions: I am found at Chicagoist, where I post often. I read this story on Chicagoist first. I live in Chicago, I work near (not at or for) the Westin in question. I go to Cons here in Chicago and have never seen any problems. I am a Union employee, so I know how a CBA can be violated when a company is asked to enforce a policy not included in that CBA. I have no axe to grind.

  7. January 17, 2014 at 3:37 pm —

    People can quibble about legalities and unions all they want: the issue is that the hotel was dismissive and abusive towards the con and its attendees. It’s a shame they’ll have to cancel this year, but hopefully they’ll find a friendlier and more accommodating venue for next year.

    Also, help me, but I read the initial tweet as “Sorry for anyone who was excited that the Skepchicks would be coming to Chick-Fil-A.” Yea, I was confused for a moment there.

  8. January 18, 2014 at 2:18 pm —

    Hmm. Two different skepchick events close to where I live? Winning.

  9. January 19, 2014 at 1:49 pm —

    There’s a ton more info in this story, which unfortunately does not support Chi-Fi’s version of events.

  10. January 20, 2014 at 3:53 am —

    There’s a ton of _speculation_ in that story. Although it may be correct, it is, as stated in the story itself, not conclusive in any way:

    “The other, less vocal narrative comes as speculation on the part of experienced con-runners”

    “There is, unfortunately, no smoking gun when it comes to determining exactly why Chi-Fi cancelled their event: it could be because of Chi-Fi’s stated reasons, or it could be because, as the Westin suggests, the event was not going to live up to their contractual obligations and wanted to avoid what would come next: having their facility space reduced, being moved off to another, smaller Westin facility or having to pay cash for a large number of un-used hotel rooms..”

  11. January 20, 2014 at 8:23 pm —

    Bjornar – I did identify the concluding statements as speculative, because that is what they are. However, anyone weighing the preponderance of the evidence would find it very hard indeed to come to any conclusion other than that the convention was making claims – false, exaggerated or otherwise – designed to encourage the hotel to cancel their contract without penalty.

    True, this is a “preponderance of the evidence” as opposed to “no reasonable doubt” standard, but the former is used in civil courts precisely because it is often difficult to obtain the smoking gun itself. If we can’t use that standard, we’d be pretty hamstrung in most everything we do. Let’s not ignore the receipt for a gun, the receipt for ammo, the smell of cordite in the air, the parking tickets showing place and time just because we can’t find the gun.

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