Nishat Ruiter, TED Conferences general counsel, on May 1, 2018, in New York City. Photo: Dian Lofton/TED

When Nishat Ruiter attended her first TED Summit two years ago, she immediately felt like she had found an employer with a mission that resonated for her.

She’d been named the top lawyer with New York-based nonprofit organization TED Conferences just months earlier and was thrilled to be involved with the organization known for its 18-minute talks on “ideas worth spreading.” TED has made a name for itself hosting prominent speakers such as Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Gilbert and many others over the years.

At first, Ruiter’s job largely consisted of licensing TED Talks and dealing with trademark enforcement, privacy issues and corporate matters. But the gig became a whole lot trickier after April 2017, when TED’s main conference in Vancouver, Canada, resulted in multiple complaints from women who claimed to have been harassed by attendees.

The complaints prompted TED GC Ruiter and her team to do an in-depth re-examination of how the organization prevents sexual harassment and how it can do better. In a recent interview, Ruiter spoke with Corporate Counsel about the experience, providing a rare look into how a GC is handling harassment issues in the era of #MeToo.

After complaints about sexual harassment came to TED’s attention, Ruiter was tasked with investigating the claims, which had ultimately resulted in two men being asked to leave the April event.

In November 2017, The Washington Post made the claims public, publishing a story that detailed complaints of harassment and misconduct by attendees at the April conference and in years prior.

The article cited TED memos leaked to the Post, including an internal email from Ruiter herself stating she had been touched inappropriately at the April event and that TED was “clearly not doing enough” about harassment issues in general.

One former Apple executive and TED speaker told the Post that the problem was nothing new at TED. “The same thing was happening five years ago. It’s still happening,” she said. “What’s different now is we’re sharing our stories.”

Citing attorney-client privilege, Ruiter declined to comment on any of the claims made in the article from the Post, or on the emails addressing complaints of misconduct, including inappropriate behavior directed at her. “It was unfortunate that something that was intended to be confidential was leaked and/or provided or posted,” she told Corporate Counsel.

What Ruiter could address in great detail was how she and her organization leapt into action in the months following the Post’s revelations. 

A major part of her work on the issue has been taking the lead in updating the organization’s code of conduct, which is pretty brief and more straightforward than the previous version. It encourages conference attendees to report sexual harassment, discrimination and other inappropriate behavior such as aggressively pushing services and products or even requesting selfies with strangers.

“It’s not just the rules that matter,” Ruiter said. “It’s the culture underlying the rules that matter. For example, is there openness to reach out? Is there a process to hear a diversity of perspectives?” 

Ruiter said that her experience in compliance over the years has taught her to advocate for a culture of authenticity. “Let’s really be authentic about what we’re saying, and let’s make sure that this is clear,” she said. “We were authentic before, but it may not have been known. It may not have been fully understood. Once we had an opportunity to improve our communications, that’s what we did.” 

TED got another shot at sending an authentic message at its main 2018 conference held earlier this month. Ruiter said the issue of harassment was addressed head on from the main stage at the start of the conference from TED owner and curator Chris Anderson.

And if a user at the conference wanted to file an incident report online, there were “advocates” from TED available to assist with their questions. 

TED also informed attendees about how to report incidents in messages sent prior to the opening of the conference and through the conference’s app, TEDConnect, which was used by 98 percent of attendees, Ruiter said.

Each time TED attendees logged on to the app, they saw a “TEDNow” button with “hints about the code of conduct” and prompts asking if they needed to report an incident, she explained.

“We made it super transparent,” Ruiter said. “It wasn’t like you have to dig and find out how to do this. … We did that for a reason.”

TED’s organizers wanted anyone to feel empowered to speak up, according to Ruiter.

As a result, she said TED ’18 went very smoothly. “In the past, we’ve asked attendees to leave,” she said. “In this particular conference, that wasn’t necessary to do so. That’s not to say people didn’t report incidents and use our advocate network. They did.”

She said that attendees used TED’s channels “to flag a handful of issues,” and that because of the organization’s new processes for handling complaints, TED could “thoughtfully and swiftly address each one in constructive, productive ways.”

Ruiter couldn’t share too many specifics on the issues flagged and did not indicate any were centered on harassment, but said, “When you have a conversation with someone who has something difficult happen or they were involved with something, and they didn’t realize it, or they didn’t understand the impact of their behavior, it’s a great opportunity for learning.”

The GC did explain how last year’s conference was different from previous gatherings because  while she had previously heard complaints from attendees, they were more “anecdotal” in the past.

“When we heard of something, we addressed it,” Ruiter said. “If you don’t hear about it, but you hear it through anecdotes or other things, there’s not a process to validate it, investigate or review it.”

“Anyone can make a passing comment about something they experienced, but we need to understand what actually happened,” she added. “Who was involved? What’s going on?”

Ruiter implemented these reforms while also taking care of more routine matters at the company—she is TED’s only in-house lawyer. To reboot the organization’s reporting policies, Ruiter relied on her compliance background from various in-house roles such as with CA Technologies Inc. and McGraw-Hill Education, as well as on compliance and investigations experts outside of TED. 

She could also depend on the support of her organization. She said TED has made addressing sexual harassment “a huge priority” and has been willing to “make bold decisions” to bolster its defenses against such behaviors.

“And that’s just because we feel it’s the right thing to do,” Ruiter said.