How do I introduce a speaker who works for an organization I dislike?
June 12, 2013 2:33 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible for me to be the "Mistress of Ceremonies" at an event where I would introduce a keynote speaker who works for an organization that has taken positions that I, personally, find very problematic?

I have been asked to be the MC at my employer's internal diversity event supporting a minority I belong to. Among other things, I would be introducing my employer's higher-up muckety mucks and the keynote speaker. (Alas, no song-and-dance numbers for me.)

However, the keynote speaker works for an organization that has had a checkered history among some members of the affinity group I belong to. The speaker's employer has taken some positions I (and others in my affinity group) have found very problematic. And within the past few months, it has had some negative publicity over these issues, too.

Given this history, it is not a group that I, personally, would like to be associated with. As best as I can tell, the keynote speaker has not personally been involved with any of this past or recent controversy.

An internal company event hardly seems like an appropriate forum for the airing of (internal) grievances, yet at the same time I think people not speaking out about these issues contributes to the problem.

Can I conduct my MC duties without compromising myself ethically? Are there acceptable middle-of-the-road alternatives between (a) turning down the speaking role and (b) engaging in a career-limiting gesture?
posted by QuantumMeruit to Human Relations (18 answers total)
Do you have to be giddy about it? I personally prefer the introducer to calmly and neutrally say a few sentences about the background and qualifications of the speaker (with perhaps one generally positive sentence) and then to ask the audience to welcome the speaker. It is a more formal style, but it does not vary if the introducer likes or dislikes the speaker and sounds professional. Can you do that?
posted by michaelh at 2:37 PM on June 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Can I conduct my MC duties without compromising myself ethically?

I think so. I think you mostly have to explain why the person was selected to be the speaker [i.e. a summary of why their work is important to your organization] and a little bit about the speaker [i.e. a few bullet points about the work that they've done]. Most people realize that the person introducing the speaker is not the person who personally selected the speaker, and that the introduction is supposed to be a very bare-bones part of the entire event.

The best thing you could do, to my read, would be to say something that slightly distances the speaker from the negative stance their organization has taken [this could be as simple as saying something about their personal as well as professional approaches to whatever topic is at hand] but I think the more politic thing to do would be to save that part for another part of the program, possibly salt the audience with people who could ask more pointed questions about the topic or just see if there's another time you could have a quiet word with them where you express your concerns. So, in short, see if you could use your access to the speaker to at some other time raise these issues but I would not do anything particular with the intro.
posted by jessamyn at 2:41 PM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Agree, keep it factual and formal. Focus on the individual and his or her accomplishments, rather than the organization.
posted by rpfields at 2:41 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is going to sound like a harsh reality check, but -- the fact that your employer has asked you to do this trumps your ethics. Your boss asked you to do this, so you do it - because your boss doesn't want you to take an ethical stand, they want you to do your job.

I hear you, believe me - I've worked for guys who asked me to set up lunch dates with themselves and guys at the Cato Institute, I've gotten them tickets to Karl Rove celebratory luncheons, stuff like that. I did it because they were paying me to do so, and the actual things I was doing were not intrinsically unethical in and of themselves.

And the act of introducing a speaker is also not intrinsically unethical, and your boss has asked you to do it. So come up with a few things to say about their qualifications, smile big, and then go home and take a shower and write a $20 check to your own political party's campaign fund or the Sierra Club or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:46 PM on June 12, 2013 [9 favorites]

If the speaker is doing this event, it may well be that he or she is looking to get out in front of the controversial issue and to improve relations between the organization and your affinity group. It might make sense to talk more with your higher ups and with the speaker in question (perhaps before the speech if time permits) about why they choose that keynote speaker and what they hope to accomplish. In an ideal world, the issue might actually be something the speaker is comfortable bringing up and discussing instead of sweeping it out under the rug. Of course, we don't know the real situation here so it's hard to speculate.

Ethically, I think you're fine giving a neutral professional introduction and handing things over to the speaker. I'd have a problem, say, delivering a laudatory introduction for Fred Phelps at a GLAAD convention (or anywhere for that matter) or for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to address the World Jewish Congress, but I'm assuming the real-world situation you have here is a lot less clear-cut. Do your job and introduce the guy, and you can always bring up the issue in private later.
posted by zachlipton at 2:57 PM on June 12, 2013

It's your job. Be professional. Full stop.
posted by xingcat at 2:58 PM on June 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: My participation in this event is unrelated to my official duties. And while I enthusiastically support our diversity efforts, speaking at this event is really "extracurricular", at least to the extent that anything at work is truly "extracurricular".

I think I got the offer because I am one of the few highly visible members of this particular minority.

The people who invited this speaker, as best as I can tell, were blissfully ignorant of the controversy that concerns me. (It's fairly well-known, though.) It's not a Fred Phelps-level controversy; however, a previous speaker to my employer on diversity and inclusion issues resigned from the board in protest a couple of years ago. The irony of that isn't lost on me.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 3:11 PM on June 12, 2013

If this were an organization that had taken positions adverse to your own, but unrelated to the subject matter of the event, and to your very identity, I would say you should put your differences aside. But it's a diversity event focusing on a particular minority group, you are a member of that group (and on preview I see that you were chosen to emcee in part based on that membership), and the speaker's organization has taken positions that are problematic among members of that group. Your introduction of the speaker could absolutely be construed negatively, and I think it's worth bringing the issue up to your employer, particularly given that the employer doesn't know about the controversy.

It could mean writing an introduction that, while gracious to the speaker, distances yourself from the group, and vetting the introduction with your employer and the speaker beforehand. You could also ask to review the speaker's remarks ahead of time, and/or ask the speaker to include some sort of disclaimer in the remarks. Government officials always say something like "the views I am about to express are my own and not those of the agency" and some similar distancing language never hurts.
posted by payoto at 3:14 PM on June 12, 2013

Can you tell your employer that you would like to pass on this assignment without losing your job? Is there someone you could mention to do it?
posted by Cranberry at 3:15 PM on June 12, 2013

I'm going to disagree with others here. I would quietly talk to the people who have asked you to introduce this speaker to explain the back story. I'd ask if they'd mind if you did the executive muckety muck intros only and chose someone else to introduce the speaker.

I organize speakers quite often myself for one of my organizations, which has a national membership. I would greatly appreciate it if I got tipped off about a potential problem issue like this and could think about how to handle it, including whether or not to ask the speaker to address it. I certainly wouldn't expect the person to tipped me off to have to make the intro.
posted by bearwife at 3:16 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Although, yes, considering your update, I think it might be a decent consciousness-raising thing to do to say "You know I don't think Id' be comfortable introducing Speaker X because of the negative stand her organization has taken on Y Topic that has been a real problem for folks of my ethnic background" As bearwife says, they might appreciate being given a heads up. I wasn't clear if you were being asked to do this as in "This would be a cool thing for you to do so we're going to have you do it" or being told to do it as in "This is your job and you have to do it" If it's more like the former, I might politely bow out.
posted by jessamyn at 3:30 PM on June 12, 2013

Can I conduct my MC duties without compromising myself ethically?

No one expects an MC to be endorsing the actions of those that they are introducing, let alone the actions of the company which the person they are introducing works for.

I'd go as far as to say that anyone who's been an MC more than a handful of times has had to introduce someone whose actions they wouldn't have felt comfortable endorsing. Unless you think anyone who MCs is compromising themselves ethically, you don't need to feel that you yourself are doing so -- but if you don't feel comfortable giving the introduction for this particular speaker, get someone else to do that part, as it will be nearly impossible for you to do well. You can introduce someone from your company who in turn introduces the speaker.

The speaker's employer has taken some positions I (and others in my affinity group) have found very problematic.

The people who invited this speaker, as best as I can tell, were blissfully ignorant of the controversy that concerns me. (It's fairly well-known, though.)

It's not clear if the affinity group you are referring to is the same minority group the diversity event is supposed to be in support of.

You should discretely talk to someone with the power to make decisions about who is to speak at the event. Ask about what the speaker's topic will be. They may have made a misstep in inviting them. Don't make this discussion about your personal feelings on any level, keep it about how the audience will perceive the event, the company's goals, and if the speaker is appropriate for the tone they want to set for the event.

You might be saving someone from an embarrassing mistake. Not knowing the specifics of he situation and your company, not bringing it up might reflect negatively on you if the event goes badly and someone realizes later that you would have been aware of the controversy.
posted by yohko at 3:30 PM on June 12, 2013 [12 favorites]

I think you've got to keep it formal and unemotional: no editorializing, either pro or con. "And now, I'd like to introduce Mr. John Doe, CEO of Baby Seal Killers International. Mr. Doe will describe how BSKI is working to increase diversity in their workplace. Welcome to our event, Mr. Doe."
posted by easily confused at 3:35 PM on June 12, 2013

Upon reading the update, I think yohko has it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:36 PM on June 12, 2013

Have you brought up this issue with the organizers? you'd be doing them a favor by making them aware. This could be a big misstep for them.

But listen with an open mind. In fact, you may be able to say "I'd like now to introduce Jane Doe of Offensive Associates. OA has experienced its share of controversy in the X community, as many of you know. Ms. Doe will share with us what they have learned and the steps they are taking now."

If you feel your warning is likely to fall on deaf ears, I would suggest you discreetly move to have someone else introduce the speaker, such as the muckety muck to speak right before her.
posted by salvia at 4:06 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

You're introducing the person, not the organization. Can you honestly and effectively give the person an effusive welcome, and cite their real accomplishments. If you'd have to say Under Chris Lee's leadership, MegaOrg has increased puppy-kicking by record numbers every year for the last 6 years, then just don't do it. But if you can say Chris Lee has a Jumbo degree from Mega College, and a Huge degree from Local Diploma Mill. Chris has been campaign chair of the United Way 3 times, and annually completes the High Profile Disease Triathlon, raising funds, and setting an impressive standard, Blah, blah, etc. And yohko nailed it with making sure Chris Lee isn't going to speak on how to maximize kitten-punching. Just don't get up and lie.
posted by theora55 at 4:08 PM on June 12, 2013

Unless it is something egregious, hopefully their is something to be gained by open discussion with this individual. And if there is a question and answer session you could always salt the audience to make a point...
posted by nickggully at 5:25 PM on June 12, 2013

It would never occur to me to connect an MC's opinions with an individual speaker's. The two people fill two very different roles. From that perspective I can see nothing ethically difficult in just introducing somebody.

However for you personally if introducing this person is tantamount to giving credibility to an organization you disagree with, to maintain your self integrity you should probably bow out.

You could also manipulate the situation in some way to bring attention to the whole issue, but that's extra credit.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:02 PM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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