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Sexual Harassment

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is defined as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature."

"Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person's sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)."

Unfortunately, sexual harassment occurs in all parts of our society, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement. Nonprofits should not assume they are immune.

Creating a Harassment-Free Workplace

All organizations should have a three-pronged approach to creating a workplace free of sexual harassment:

  • Policies that define sexual harassment, describe the process for reporting it, and communicate the consequences of sexually harassing an employee, volunteer, or donor. The definition of sexual harassment should include what is inappropriate as well as what is clearly illegal.
  • Training to raise awareness of behaviors that are harassment as well as those that create a hostile environment or discomfort in the workplace. The training should include awareness of cultural norms that impact an employee's experience in the workplace. It is important that the training is specific about the behaviors that are not tolerated. The training should also set up the expectations that any staff member will speak up directly to a person if they observe inappropriate behavior and will report that behavior to their employer.
  • An organizational culture that intentionally affirms the value of all people, sets out behavioral expectations, and encourages a policy of "see something, say something." Expectations that bystanders will intervene and report harassment should be clearly communicated and ingrained in the culture of the organization.

It is important that this three-pronged approach be designed to deal not only with men harassing women but with actions by women toward men, women toward other women, men toward other men, and behavior toward non-binary or gender-fluid staff.

Most importantly, do not ignore harassing behaviors. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of sex discrimination and employers can be held responsible for not taking action to protect employees from harassment and sexual assault. Disrespect and incivility can be ‘gateway’ to sexual harassment. These behaviors and any precursors to harassment should be addressed proactively.


Research has shown that our societal views of sexual harassment and of female-identifying people cause many to see sexual harassment policies in a way that is upside-down. There is a tendency to see the predator as being a victim of an accusation rather than focus on the person who felt harassed. Training and strong cultural values can counter this tendency and protect people from being retaliated against for coming forward.

Sexual harassment should be addressed in volunteer policies as well as in personnel policies. The volunteer policies should protect volunteers against harassment and make it clear that volunteers, including the board, are not to harass other volunteers or staff.

Your volunteer policies and personnel policies (including employee handbook) should include these components in its sexual harassment policies:

Define sexual harassment.

Prohibited behavior includes inappropriate speech, unwanted physical contact, and pornography in the workplace.

The description of inappropriate behavior and the process for dealing with it may be impacted by the organization's mission or cultural roots. One rape crisis center made it a rule that no one is to be physically touched without first asking for consent because so many employees had been victimized themselves and were often interacting with victims.

Make sure that your sexual harassment is not used as an excuse to avoid supervision.  The policies should include a statement that "it is not considered harassment for a supervisor/manager to require employees to perform their job duties, hit performance goals, or demonstrate behaviors in line with standards of conduct."

Reporting procedures

Employees should be allowed to report harassment either in writing or orally. You will need to conduct a formal investigation of the circumstances. Communicate the results of the investigation to those involved.

Prohibit retaliation

The policies should specifically prohibit retaliation against someone reporting harassment. Employees need to feel confident that the complaint procedure is fair and effective. It is important to provide an environment where employees belief that they will not be retaliated against if they report harassment. Explicit HR policies, training, and strong cultural values can help protect people from being retaliated against for coming forward.