Nonprofit organizations have a legal responsibility to prevent, examine and act on sexual harassment in the workplace. Further, they must ensure that no one who complains of harassment is retaliated against. Failure to adequately perform any of these obligations can land nonprofit leaders in court.

Just as important is the court of public opinion. Your organization, devoted to the public good, can’t afford to see its brand tarnished by rumors of sex discrimination or harassment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission states it plainly: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

Here are four actions that can pay off quickly:

  • Start with your culture. The surest protection against harassment is an environment, demonstrated by the leadership, of collegial respect.
  • Establish clear policies and follow them. Include not just bans on specific conduct, but also accountability for all, from the board to the mailroom. That will encourage associates to raise their concerns and mandate a prompt and fair investigation.
  • Educate your people. Train everyone, including volunteers, to understand what’s prohibited, what to do if it occurs and how the organization will address complaints.
  • Consult your attorney. State laws on harassment vary, so put yourself on firm footing. Your insurance company may also offer guidance.

Office chatter sometimes includes good-natured reciprocal teasing, and coworkers invite one another to dinner. But unwelcome advances or frequent comments based on gender—whether directed to an individual or generally—can constitute harassment.

Proactive measures, however, can protect your staff, volunteers, board members and the organization itself.




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