5 minute read

In December 2017, the governing board for Humane Society of the United States hired a law firm to investigate sexual harassment allegations against its CEO, Wayne Pacelle. The firm alleged that three women had presented credible charges of sexual harassment against him, and several more had been given settlements for retaliatory actions stemming from blowing the whistle on Pacelle.

It was also publicized that a longtime vice president had faced similar charges in 2016, but had been allowed to continue as a vice president of a different department. (The Humane Society of the United States is not affiliated with local humane societies that run pet shelters.)

Despite the evidence, the board voted in January to retain the CEO and to close the investigation—even though more women continued to come forward. The result? A quarter of the board quit and several large donors withdrew their support. A day later, the CEO resigned. Neither the CEO or the board apologized.

Sexual harassment scandals like this have rocked not only the Humane Society, but other high-profile organizations like the Red Cross in recent months, and are shedding light on how the #MeToo movement is clearly not just an industry-specific or Hollywood issue. It would be nice to think that sexual harassment and abuse are rare occurrences at organizations that exist to do good, but unfortunately they’re not—and just like in other industries, cases often go unnoticed and unpunished.

What can your organization do to address this topic in a meaningful way? Start by understanding what constitutes “harassment.” Though it’s taken center stage in the past few years thanks to a multitude of scandals in the entertainment, political and the corporate world, workplace harassment covers more than sexual harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines harassment 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 that definition.

According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, more than half of all American women (54%) have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances.” For 30% of women, this type of behavior was at the hand of male colleagues, and 25% identified men with influence over their career. The poll found that, in all, 33 million U.S. women have been sexually harassed—and 14 million sexually abused—in work-related episodes. Yet 95% of women reported that male offenders usually go unpunished.

Even if you don’t think this touches your nonprofit, it’s possible that staff members or volunteers have experienced harassment and felt unable to speak up. Every nonprofit leader should be aware that volunteers have the right to sue a nonprofit if they’ve experienced harassment while working with the organization. So do board members.

Is your nonprofit prepared to deal with the issue of harassment if it hits close to home? If you’re unsure, now’s the time to take steps to lay the foundation for a culture where harassment is not perpetrated, tolerated or ignored.

1. Clearly identify your organization’s values and hire according to them.

Acceptance. Equality. Respect. Compassion. Hard work. What are your organization’s values and do your employees and volunteers know that succeeding at your organization means observing those values 24/7? If there’s a disconnect between the values your organization claims to stand for and the behavior of your staff, especially with your execs, board members and even powerful donors, you have a problem. Values are worthless if they’re just words on paper. Take a good look around—are the people affiliated most closely with your nonprofit a living, breathing embodiment of your value system? If not, address this issue immediately. And as you move forward, consider hiring for values, not just skill set. You can train new employees, but you can’t fundamentally change them.

2. Spell out your harassment policy and determine what is and is not accepted in your workplace.

Without a clear anti-harassment policy, employees may not fully understand how to report incidents, what to expect after one is reported, or even what constitutes harassment. A good anti-harassment policy eliminates confusion and protects those who report perceived harassment. It should include at the bare minimum:

  • Your definition of harassment.
  • How to report an incident of harassment.
  • How those reporting will be protected from retaliation or punishment.
  • How perpetrators will be disciplined and/or dealt with.

3. Create harassment reporting processes for staff, volunteers and board members.

Remember: Harassment can be just as prevalent among board members and volunteers as it is among staff. Make these groups aware of your anti-harassment policy and of the procedures for reporting instances of harassment.

Reporting processes can vary, but most companies and nonprofits will ask victims of harassment to discuss complaints with their supervisor, who will then report it to the HR department or to the Executive Director. In addition, most workplaces allow victims to report incidences directly to HR, after which the incident is investigated. People often feel nervous or embarrassed about reporting workplace harassment, even to an objective third party like human resources. One step toward alleviating that is to use an anonymous reporting tool like MySafeWorkplace or AllVoices. You can also hire an outside HR or law firm to investigate reports.

4. Decide how you’ll handle reports of harassment.

Consequences can vary, but as a general guideline, if an individual has committed an unprofessional or inappropriate act which doesn’t constitute unlawful harassment, he may be reprimanded, counseled or placed on probation. If an individual is found guilty of unlawful harassment, a no-tolerance policy would suggest termination or forced resignation. Of course, your organization should set its own standards as to how to handle each situation or incident, but those standards should be clear, consistent and enforced across the board. If they’re not, you create a gray area where harassment is concerned, which signals to your staff that some types of harassment may indeed by tolerated and not met with appropriate consequences. And this may prevent some victims from reporting.

5. Don’t shrug off harassment as “something that happens everywhere” or “not a big deal.”

First, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the tides have clearly changed and the #MeToo movement has uncovered a multitude of sins from Hollywood to Washington and all the way to Small Town, USA. Powerful men who’ve behaved badly for years are losing not only their jobs, but their entire careers as they’re shunned by both colleagues and the public. Many people say “it’s about time.” Whatever your personal views on the matter are, this much is true: This movement is not going away, and sexual harassment has become more than just the topic of an annual mandatory seminar hosted by HR. It’s something that can cost an individual his livelihood, and victims are empowered like never before to speak up.

To protect your organization as well as keep it safe and above board, be clear that everyone is responsible for preventing harassment in the workplace. Encourage team members and volunteers to speak up if they recognize a problem. Let them know that its appropriate to report secondhand instances of harassment. And emphasize both confidentiality and the importance of protecting coworkers.

The governing board of the Humane Society of the United States mistakenly believed they could minimize the damage done by their now-former CEO, and it cost their organization both financially and in public sentiment. This is the new world order, thanks to the #MeToo movement, and nonprofits who fail to take it seriously may fail in more ways than one.