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Sexual Harassment

Workplace harassment can take many forms. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment as a form of employment discrimination and as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” State laws may broaden this definition.

One form of harassment is sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment occurs in all parts of our society.  Nonprofits should not assume that they are immune because of their mission focus.

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 people's experience in the workplace. It is important the 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 "If you see something, say something."

While most harassment is of women by men, 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-cisgender people.

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.


Research has shown that our societal views of sexual harassment and of women cause many people 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 was 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 both 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 include sexual harassment spoken statements, sexualized touching, j and pornography in the workplace.

The description of inappropriate behavior and 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 you don't touch somebody without asking first,  because so many employees had been victimized themselves and were interacting with victims all the time.

Make sure that 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 in spoken conversation. 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.


Sexual harassment