Real responses to real-life questionsKathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, offers her response to the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. 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.
I spurned a board member’s sexual advances and was fired.
I was the executive director at a nonprofit and our entire staff and board attended a holiday party hosted by a board member and his wife.
When I went into the master bedroom to get my coat at the end of the party, our host followed me in and very graphically, sexually propositioned me. I was stunned. My husband was at the party with me, this man’s wife and kids were downstairs and he was a very well-respected member of the community. I assertively declined and left immediately, thinking he must have been drunk and that would be the end of it.
When I went back to work Monday, much to my surprise, I received a call from the board chair (a good friend of the culprit), telling me I was immediately fired for “poor performance.” I was instructed to pack up my belongings and leave, which I did (in a state of shock).
Prior to this incident, I always received stellar performance reviews from the board, as well as staff. As executive director I had doubled the size and scope of our nonprofit for at-risk children, with the board’s enthusiastic support. At no time was there any indication that I was a “poor performer.”
It took me a while to believe that this could have happened. How could the board chair, a woman, be complicit in this unfair outcome? I blamed myself and felt ashamed, depressed and undermined. I soon found another position as an executive director, but this incident has bothered me for years. I loved the job I lost, and felt so good about all I had done to expand our capacity to help children.
Should I have done something differently? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other women out there who have worked for this creepy and vindictive man and suffered a similar fate. How does this cycle stop?
Kathryn says ...
First, to be completely transparent, this is my question, based upon what happened to me.
I was in my early thirties and it was my first executive director position. I loved that nonprofit and it was a tough gig. When I was hired, the nonprofit had been going down the drain. The previous executive director stopped filing annual reports and the related funding had been lost — which I restored. People weren’t getting paid, clients were on waiting lists and it was a very deep hole to dig out of. Nonetheless, our team did it and we slowly made our way back to financial and programmatic sustainability.
After a year and a half of stress and ceaseless work, this nefarious board member decided to try and get cozy with me. It was shocking and disgusting. Worse than the attempted victimization was the reason he trumped up to fire me: poor performance. That really stuck in my throat, since I did a good job of turning this nonprofit around and I was proud of that. Like all women, I was used to fools who act like 12-year-old boys when it comes to their sexuality. But I had never been called incompetent and it was a perfect way to silence me.
This is the only job I've ever been dismissed from and being falsely accused of failing to do my work in a concerted board cover-up of this man’s bad behavior was humiliating.
As a part of my legal settlement, I had to agree to never disclose the name of the nonprofit or the man who hit on me. I never did, but it is this sort of agreement that allows creeps to keep on being creepy. I didn’t know this at the time. I only wanted to move on and forget it. For years, however, I was scared that someone would ask me about my tenure at this nonprofit and what had happened. I felt I would be blamed. I simply dropped this job from my resume and avoided people who knew me at that job.
Recent news stories about film mogul Harvey Weinstein are nothing new and we will keep on being victims as long as we agree, tacitly or otherwise, to help shield these evil-doers-of-evil-deeds. Never underestimate the willingness of a predator to blame anyone and everyone else — as well as recruit supporters — into maintaining their professional and personal “nice-guy” facade.
Remember that there are legal protections in place for anyone — women and men both — facing a similar situation. Sexual harassment and retaliation in the workplace have been ignored glossed over for too long. If you are ever victimized in a similar way, get legal representation immediately.
Now, your take!
Ruth T-C says ... It's important to remember that you did nothing wrong. The only thing you might have been able to do at the time was to tell your husband and everyone at the event, what the boss just did. Something like “So-and-so just made an inappropriate gesture to me, perhaps because of over-indulging in this social setting. I just want it known that this has happened.” But even that would be hard to do in the moment.
Hindsight is always 20/20, of course, but I would have contacted the board as soon as fired to present what happened, documenting the party incident and the previous positive performance reviews. It might not have done any good, but it would have made you feel better and stronger. I also would have consulted whatever the organization had as HR guidelines, because this doesn’t sound like a legal action, and considered filing suit for unlawful dismissal.
The only way to stop this vicious cycle is to speak up at the time and document every bad move by such creeps. It might not work right then and there, but eventually it will. It’s always a risk in many ways, so it’s scary, but I think its one worth taking. You have nothing to blame yourself for. We’ve all had to endure such treatment on some level and have handled it as best we could then and now. Hold up your head and stay strong.