When #MeToo hit last year like a hurricane, it revealed not only countless accounts of sexual harassment and assault but also vulnerabilities in the systems and processes meant to protect individuals and employees. Just like after any hurricane, now is the time to rebuild. To guard against harassment, we all need a stronger foundation for our organizations.
In the social sector, we benefit from what is called the “halo effect” because we stand for social good. Because of this, we sometimes don’t bear the full brunt of issues that plague the for-profit world. Even so, I have been surprised how little the #MeToo movement seems to have impacted us. Does this mean that sexual harassment doesn’t exist in the social sector? I asked around and heard many stories that show it is just as rampant in the social sector as it is in the corporate world. Directors taking advantage of struggling actors. Donors and board members demeaning staff with phrases like “sweetie pie.” No, the social sector is not immune to #MeToo. To the contrary, the silence we’ve heard means we have not yet addressed it fully as a community. So, I asked my go-to expert on all things HR, Gabriela Norton of People Performance Resources, to share what we all need to learn from the #MeToo movement and ensure that our organizations lead by example and support employees.
Unless you have been living under a rock, it is doubtful you have missed the #MeToo phenomenon over the past year. And, few have been as affected by the social media firestorm as today’s employers and business leaders. The #MeToo movement has bolstered the confidence of women and employees, empowering them to speak out against sexual assault and harassment. Most recently, thousands of Google employees walked out of their offices in protest of the company’s treatment of sexual harassment allegations. So, what can employers do to protect themselves while also fostering an environment of support for their employees? 
  1. It starts at the top. Leadership and accountability are critical for the success of any anti-harassment program. Today’s leadership must acknowledge the reality of #MeToo and make effective harassment prevention efforts a top priority. A workplace culture in which harassment is not tolerated, must start at the highest levels of the organization.
  2. Assess risk. 62% of organizations are assessing company culture and identifying risks for harassment as a result of the #MeToo movement. To assess risk, invite an outside Human Resources consultant to survey employees. Employees are much more likely to communicate concerns to someone outside their organization than their boss. If you have a Governance or Personnel/HR board committee, share the results and possible next steps with them for an added layer of accountability. 
  3. Train employees, managers and board members on a regular basis. Employers need to adopt and maintain a comprehensive anti-harassment policy to include training, multi-faceted reporting procedures, adequate resources for investigations and consistent, prompt discipline. This should not be done in a vacuum; employers need to invest in the expertise of HR, training and legal professionals to develop an effective program. This program should also include volunteers, as well as board members and donors.
  4. Provide anonymity. Fear of retaliation perpetuates the secretiveness of bad behavior. Give employees and volunteers an avenue to report harassment that allows them to maintain anonymity. This can be as simple as developing an online process for sharing anonymous reports. 
  5. Address EVERY complaint. It can be easy to overlook or be slow to respond to a complaint from someone who is a poor performer or the constant squeaky wheel. However, these individuals are often the ones who feel most comfortable reporting. Do not discount a complaint based on the complainant, but take every allegation seriously and investigate with due diligence. 
  6. Build a culture of respect. Finally, organizations should promote an organizational culture in which respect and civility are fostered from the executive level down; communicate and model a consistent commitment to that culture in every meeting and interaction.
There isn’t a foolproof way to eliminate harassment, but the policies and training social sector organizations put in place, along with their commitment to enforce those policies and their overall adoption of a “lead by example” mentality, will allow employees to feel confident and supported if they ever do need to report harassment.
This is an important issue for all organizations – no matter their size. To get you started, we like this sample harassment prevention policy from National Council of Nonprofits. Additionally, if you want a deeper dive on sexual harassment, the National Council of Nonprofits has a great piece that covers all the bases in detail. There are also Human Resource experts available to assist with the development of your program or in managing these sensitive investigations. When you make it a priority to address harassment of any kind, you are sending a strong message to your employees, volunteers and donors that you have the highest degree of integrity. If you have already assessed your organization’s risk and implemented harassment prevention training, we’d love to hear about your experience and any lessons learned.


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