Nonprofits Shouldn't Ignore Workplace Harassment

By Eric Cormier

Eric Cormier
Do the laws governing workplace harassment fully apply to nonprofit organizations? Are volunteer workers protected to the same degree as employees?

It’s interesting to note that nonprofit directors are sometimes unsure of the answers to such questions. Violations of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws can be just as financially damaging to nonprofits as they are to for-profit companies.

Moreover, putting aside the harmful impact of potential cash judgments and the negative effects of bad publicity, harassment of any kind can lead to poor employee morale, increased absenteeism and disruptive turnover, all of which contribute to reduced productivity, which the typical nonprofit cannot afford.

To address the first question above: Absolutely yes. In Massachusetts, all places of employment are subject to both federal and state laws prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, age or disability. Harassment resulting from bullying is not illegal, although a proposed law (the Healthy Workplace Act) that would make it so is under consideration in Massachusetts. Similar legislation is on the table in several other states.

As for the second question, regarding volunteer workers, the answer is less clear cut. Generally speaking, only workers who are compensated are subject to the protection of anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws. But federal district courts are not always in agreement on the finer points and have, on occasion, allowed lawsuits by volunteer employees to proceed.

In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that volunteers, while not covered by the state’s anti-discrimination statutes, can file suits under other state laws.

The essential take-away from this lack of clarity is that nonprofits should provide management training and apply best practices to prevent all manner of on-the-job discrimination and harassment, including bullying.

Despite its prominence in today’s headlines, discrimination in the workplace is not new. It was evident in the early days of our nation, yet no laws were passed related to this serious issue until 1964, when Title VII was enacted as part of the monumental Civil Rights Act. Nevertheless, discrimination in its many forms has doggedly persisted as a problem in the workplace to this day, at least in part because there is a lack of understanding about its connotation.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines harassment as any unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, sex, religion, or national origin. Some examples of conduct that might be considered harassment may include sexually oriented remarks, comments about one’s physical appearance, written or graphically derogatory material, excessive unwanted attention, or inappropriate touching.

Although the guidelines for appropriate behavior may seem obvious, employees should conduct themselves professionally and always think before they speak, considering how words may be perceived. They should also ignore peer pressure that can inappropriately influence their actions, and treat others as they would like to be treated.

Preventing harassment and discrimination should be the responsibility of every employee, from senior executives to file clerks. Harassment should be reported to a supervisor or human resources professional within the organization, so that the matter can be addressed immediately and effectively. Some employees may be hesitant to speak up because they fear retaliation from their employer; however, it is unlawful for an employer to fire, demote, or harass an employee for involvement in a harassment complaint.

The reasons to maintain a workplace free of harassment of any kind go well beyond the legal consequences. Employee harassment can sap a workforce of its productivity and desire to achieve organizational goals, damage the entity in the public’s eyes, and make a harmful impact on fundraising. But with proper training programs in place, management can eliminate it from the nonprofit workplace.

Eric Cormier is a human resources specialist in the Boston office of Insperity, a national provider of human resources and business performance solutions, whose clients include a variety of nonprofit organizations. Call 800-465-3800 or visit.
March 2016