Ask Rita: How Do I Prevent Sexual Harassment at My Nonprofit?

To Rita in HR:

We're a relatively new nonprofit that has taken note of the #metoo movement. This has increased our awareness, but has also led us to ask ourselves, "How do we prevent sexual harassment and assault from happening at our nonprofit, and how should we handle it if it does occur?" Our Human Resources staff is knowledgeable but not very experienced in handling these issues.

Sincerely,
Aware but Concerned

Dear Aware but Concerned:

Your concern is well justified and your awareness of the problem is a good place to start!

Many people claim that the recent headlines and the "#metoo" movement are a long overdue and inevitable response to a pervasive culture that permitted and tolerated sexual harassment in the workplace for decades.

This legacy will take time to remedy, even with the legally-required training and guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the other State EEO agencies on preventing harassment.

The best place to start is to develop a clear understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace and maintain a culture that will not accept or tolerate any sexual misconduct or activity in the workplace in any form.

To ensure that meaningful steps are being taken to achieve this:

1. Implement a zero tolerance policy for any form of sexually related conduct in the workplace.

Prohibiting sexual activity in the office--even between people dating--increases your ability to aggressively respond to unacceptable behavior. A zero tolerance policy is also a more effective way to protect employees from harassment and does not require the conduct to be severe, pervasive, or unwelcome to support taking action against violations of the policy.

2. Implement a strong and effective complaint and investigation process.

Most jurisdictions' anti-discrimination and harassment laws require this, but these policies should also ensure that supervisors proactively monitor the workplace for any sign of activity that might violate the zero tolerance policy. The policy should provide for a prompt, fair, and thorough investigation into any complaint or report, regardless of whether it is substantiated.

3. Create and maintain an effective training program.

While many jurisdictions also require workplace sexual harassment education and training, these typically only apply to supervisors or managers. I recommend you mandate the participation of your entire team: managers, supervisors, board members, staff, and even interns and volunteers. In addition to including what sexual harassment is and how to identify when it happens, the program should also emphasize the agency's strong and unequivocal commitment to preventing and eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace, and everyone's role in contributing to this mission.

4. Demonstrate proactive, evenly applied support of enforcement, regardless of who the violator may be.

Failure to take meaningful action in response to a complaint compounds the risk of liability, creates poor workplace morale, and may lead to negative publicity.

The best first step is to remove the offender by placing him or her on paid leave immediately. This often presents management with a conflict of loyalties if the offender is:

  • a long time employee, colleague, or friend,
  • a very productive or important contributor to the overall operation of the agency, or
  • a member of senior management.

Loyalties or practical concerns must be set aside in making decisions and imposing consequences for violation of sexual harassment policies, even in the interim before they are substantiated.

It is critical to acknowledge that no one is too important, indispensable, or essential to an employer's operations to be spared from disciplinary action for violations of a sexual harassment policy, and managers should be encouraged to demonstrate the courage to handle these situations properly.

5. Welcome and support complaints.

Nothing encourages employees who have suffered sexual harassment to come forward and report their experiences more than a senior manager or board member who welcomes, supports, and empathizes with the employee. That support not only enhances morale within the workplace affected by harassment, but it demonstrates an appreciation of the problem and the commitment to prevent it from occurring again.

"Harassment in the workplace will not stop on its own--it's on all of us to be part of the fight to stop workplace harassment. We cannot be complacent bystanders and expect our workplace cultures to change themselves." -EEOC

Let us all take the EEOC's words to heart and protect not only our nonprofits from sexual harassment and abuse, but play our parts in bringing about the just, equitable, and safe world many of our organizations aim to create.

View a free half-hour Powerpoint presentation about preventing workplace sexual harrassment here.

Mike Bishop is a graduate of the University of California, Davis with a Bachelor's degree in Political Science, and a graduate of the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. He is a member of the State Bar of California and has been admitted to practice in a number of Federal District Courts in both California and Ohio. During his legal career, he worked for 32 years with a Sacramento law firm where he focused on employment litigation in both State and Federal courts. During that time he defended employers in litigation. In 2016, he began his work as an Employment Risk Manager for the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, assisting nonprofits in evaluating employment risks. He lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

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