Good Counsel: Prevent and Respond

Be ready to investigate a report of sexual harassment.

Imagine you have a volunteer leader who is known to make occasional off-color remarks to other members or your staff. This behavior may have been accepted in the past, but today, it would come back to haunt you if you were ever accused of fostering a culture that tolerates inappropriate conduct.

Avoiding liability for sexual harassment or other forms of workplace bullying requires both prevention and appropriate response if an allegation arises.

Prevention starts with setting the right tone from the top. Board and staff leaders must clearly state that harassment, discrimination, and retaliation will not be tolerated. A code of conduct for the organization is one concrete expression of this commitment, but it should be emphasized regularly in staff and volunteer orientations and in communications from senior staff clearly explaining expected behavior and consequences for violations.

Periodic staff and volunteer training will reinforce the message. Bear in mind that protections against harassment apply not only to full- and part-time employees but also to interns and volunteers.

When responding to a specific report of harassment, take these steps:

Speak with human resources to determine whether the allegation should be raised with in-house or outside legal counsel. Seek counsel who specialize in representing associations or other nonprofits in employment matters in your jurisdiction.

Tell the person reporting the conduct that you appreciate that he or she raised the issue because it is important that members of your community treat one another with respect.

Consider carefully who should conduct an investigation. It may be appropriate for the HR department or CEO to investigate a complaint against a staff member, but outside counsel or an independent board member may be a better option in more complicated cases or instances involving executive staff or volunteer leaders.

Assure the person who raised the complaint that you will fully investigate the matter. Explain that you may not be able to provide all the details and results of the investigation because of due process and privacy concerns. Commit to a reasonable time frame for the investigation and follow it, so the person who reported the issue is not left hanging.

Conduct the investigation. Interview witnesses, collect evidence, and document the findings. Implement recommended follow-up actions.

Other considerations may include notifying the insurer of potential claims and possibly notifying law enforcement. Finally, be consistent: Don’t ignore inappropriate behavior by one person and punish another.

(Sezeryadigar/Getty Images)

Thomas Cluderay

By Thomas Cluderay

Thomas Cluderay is general counsel at Yellowstone Forever, the nonprofit education and fundraising partner for Yellowstone National Park. MORE

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