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By January 8, 2018February 5th, 2018Blog,

By Sonya Llewellyn, Associate Director, HR Services

My first awareness of sexual harassment, from an HR perspective, came in 1991 during the Anita Hill testimony given against Clarence Thomas, then a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. That had a huge impact on me as a novice HR professional. I learned a lot in the next few years on how to educate our workforce and clients and how to successfully manage allegations of harassment in my organization. Sexual harassment was THE HR hot topic. There was a tremendous amount of information, education and the beginnings of change that occurred in the 90’s. It’s 2018 and we realize we still have a lot of work to do.

It goes without saying that your primary responsibility, as a nonprofit leader, is to prevent harassment from happening in the first place. This is typically achieved by educating your employees and making it clear, in training, in writing and in practice, that harassment and unprofessional bad behavior, of any sort, will not be tolerated in your organization.

In light of the immense number of public allegations of sexual harassment and just plain bad behavior in the news, I thought I would talk about illegal harassment versus unprofessional bad behavior. We field many calls regarding situations that come up in member organizations where someone has reported they have been harassed. Often, the behavior described does not meet the legal definition of harassment. That can be challenging to discuss and convey back to the person who feels they have been harassed. I want to be crystal clear that no organization should condone behavior that makes others feel belittled or unsafe anywhere and it does not mean that any employee who is unprofessional should not be disciplined.

Let’s think back to Anita Hill’s testimony. What she described was a situation that was severe and pervasive with unwanted, unwelcome sexual conduct. It was, to her, a hostile environment filled with sexual innuendo and was downright demeaning. That is the definition of illegal sexual harassment.

Does this mean that if someone tells an off color or sexual joke or story that that would constitute illegal sexual harassment. Probably not as a singular event, however it would qualify as unprofessional. Unprofessional behavior can be described as inconsiderate, impolite and/or disrespectful. For example, let’s say you have a deaf coworker and you overhear an employee mock their speech. This sounds like harassing behavior based on disability. Under federal law, if that is a onetime event, with nothing more said, it probably is not enough in and of itself to create a hostile work environment. So, while it isn’t illegal, severe and/or pervasive, this is definitely not behavior we want or should tolerate in our organizations. This is unprofessional belittling behavior and is unacceptable and therefore should be prohibited. Make sure your policies are clear on this.

Here are some basic steps to take if you receive a complaint of unprofessional behavior:

  1. Have a strong well-crafted complaint procedure. Make sure you have good policies regarding the complaint procedure. Specify how and to whom an employee can take their complaint. Provide your employees with a clear and multi-channel complaint procedure for reporting potential violations or wrongdoing.
  2. Investigate promptly. You should consider calling a labor attorney before starting the investigation to maintain attorney client privilege. Make sure you follow well defined clear basic procedures to investigate complaints.
  3. Discipline appropriately. Not all allegations of harassment are terminable offenses. Be consistent in your practices.
  4. No retaliation. Do not forget to inform employees of and enforce your no retaliation policy. No one should be adversely affected in employment as a result of bringing concerns or complaints of harassment, whether unacceptable or illegal, to their employer.

If you are interested in a checklist to assist you with any investigation or you have any HR related issue, contact HR Services at or (800)358-2163.

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