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The advice column offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector .

Sexual harassment in the workplace?

Dear Kathryn,

I'm the executive director of a small nonprofit. Recently, I went to a restaurant and saw one of my board members having what was an obviously romantic dinner with our receptionist. I think they saw me, but I'm not sure. This board member is very involved in our charity and I appreciate all he does. Still, I don't think it's appropriate for him to date the receptionist — but I don't know how to proceed. I haven't said a word to anyone, but our receptionist seems to be avoiding me. What should I do?

Kathryn says ...

I shared this letter with a colleague, a very seasoned nonprofit executive.  His advice was: this is no one's business but the two people involved and the executive director should "step carefully" before sharing this incident with anyone, including the board chair.  I DISAGREE.  In multiple experiences as a nonprofit and for-profit leader, I have found that "stepping carefully" in this space only reinforces problems that women (and sometimes men) have with harassment in the workplace.

Remember: a board member is an executive leader in a nonprofit and makes decisions that can impact line staff. Any romantic relationship between an executive leader (staff or volunteer) and a less powerful staff member can put the entire organization at risk of future harassment claims. As well, these relationships can cause stress on your employee. If she's avoiding you, she might be feeling embarrassed or scared — which is unfair to her.

The news is filled with stories of victimized women who are speaking out. We've all been reading about another type of "romantic date" that isn't about amour, but is instead a forced tête-à-tête that can turn ugly, harassing and vindictive if the person of influence is disappointed in the outcome (or lack thereof). It certainly happens and it can be devastating to the victim. As executive director, your first responsibilities include protection of your staff from such harassment, if there is any possibility of such a negative scenario.

Even if this relationship has begun as consensual, what if she wants to stop seeing this board member, about the time you have unrelated budget cuts that eliminate her job? What if she gets reprimanded for poor performance? She could interpret these acts as retribution from leadership. There are many other possible scenarios that could negatively impact the organization.

I'd contact your lawyer for advice, asking him or her to review your board bylaws, policies and applicable state or Federal laws regarding sexual harassment. Ask your attorney for legal advice for you and your board chair.  Then, without fail, tell your board president about the entire incident, what steps you have taken and ask the board chair to follow the attorney's advice.  This counsel may include your chair having a private conversation with the dating board member, spelling out the potential problems and asking the board member to end the relationship or resign from his board position. I'd follow that with a private conversation with the receptionist, assuring her that she did nothing wrong. You don't need tension with your receptionist, especially since she's the person you're ethically bound to protect. Tell her that. Make sure she doesn't feel that she already has a grievance or that she was compelled to date the board member. Document everything, date it and give it to your HR representative, unless you are a smaller nonprofit's HR representative. Make a copy of everything for a confidential file.  Send all this to your attorney, as well.

Hiding this type of issue or "minding your own business" can lead to later legal problems.  As executive director, you report to your board and you are obligated to keep them informed of situations involving potential liability.

If you don't have a written policy about which types of personal relationships are OK and which are not, use this as an opportunity for your board to develop and approve such a policy.



The opinions offered here are based on the author's personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.




Co-founder and CEO of MissionBox, founder and president of MissionBox Philanthropic Fund, founder and past CEO of Community TechKnowledge


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