Q: A couple months ago you wrote about a man who had been sexually harassed by a teacher in high school and the board did nothing about it. It turns out this behavior had been going on for a while. It made me think of a boss I once had. He was a serial harasser. Most of his female employees experienced it, and put up with it, not knowing what to do that might change such reprehensible behavior. For all I know, this man may still have his job and may still be harassing a new generation of women.
You indicated the board remained at least morally culpable all these years later. And, yes, we’ve seen some powerful men lose their jobs and Bill Cosby go to prison for sexual assault. Yet, as I write this, we have just gone through the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and his subsequent elevation to the Supreme Court. Truly, what course is open to the “every woman” working in a nonprofit who experiences harassment at the hands of a superior – especially one that has been in his position for a long time and is well liked and generally respected?
A: I think a lot of people feel like you do – that there is little that can be done. That sense of helplessness is reinforced when we see someone like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford turn her life upside down, only to have so many disregard her testimony and have to watch the preordained move forward as if she had said nothing. But, like in so many other situations, if no one steps up, if everyone fails to do his or her part to put a stop to sexual harassment or sexual violence, nothing will change.
You do not say where this individual from your past existed in the hierarchy of your organization or how much “protection” he may have had. Nor do you say how large the organization was and whether it provided an employee handbook or had an HR department. But, let’s explore some of the options available to someone facing this situation today.
The first step, obviously, is to tell the individual to stop the offending behavior. Avoid sugar-coating your language. Be clear and unequivocal.
If that doesn’t put an end to the behavior, look for a grievance procedure, if not a specific procedure for dealing with sexual harassment. These will be spelled out either in an employee handbook or the organization’s bylaws. Start with the steps laid out there. If there is an HR Department, a trip to that office is a safe bet. The people there are trained to confront such situations. In fact, if this individual is in fact a serial abuser, they may be waiting for you, as your testimony may provide the needed tipping point.
If the organization is too small to have an HR Department or too young to have a policy, go to the CEO. If the abuser is the CEO, or is protected by the CEO, go directly to the board. Check the organizational chart to see if there is a board director with the responsibility for HR issues. If not, go to the board chair.
In all cases, it’s best if you come prepared with dates, places, a description of the situations, direct quotes, or a colleague that overheard or saw something that can corroborate your statements. You mentioned that this individual had harassed a number of women. If you know some of them, go together.
If, in spite of trying all these steps, you get no satisfaction, you still have a couple of options. The easiest is to quit and go quietly into the night. Better might be to ask for an exit interview with the entire board. If granted, you can share why you are leaving, which includes the fact that despite your best efforts to bring this situation up through the proper channels, you were unable to get anything to change.
You can call your local office of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. You will have to be able to explain how the behavior you experienced goes beyond isolated incidents or irritations to create an intimidating, hostile environment that the average person would find equally offensive. You should have a good case if you have tried everything outlined above to no avail.
You can also go, alone or with others, to the papers. Know if you do that, you are exposing the organization to a potential death sentence, but it probably deserves it if it is willing to sacrifice so many of its employees to keep one bad apple. Personally, I would warn the board ahead of time, giving it one last opportunity to do the right thing.
Remember, even though it can take years, sometimes it’s an incessant “drip, drip, drip” that creates the canyon!