Nonprofit Association Meetings Bring Increased Risks of Sexual Harassment Claims

Nonprofit associations engage in risk business every time they hold an off-site meeting. Not only do you have to worry about the behavior of your staff, but also the behavior of volunteer officers and directors, vendors and others. Associations need to take a proactive approach to reduce the risks, rather than waiting and responding only when complaints arise.

Associations that hold off-site meetings are particularly at risk. For example, I have a client that administers an onsite interview program. Because of the number of interviews, and to keep costs down, the association holds the nterviews at a suite-style hotel. The programs interviewing book a hotel suite to stay in and conduct interviews in the sitting area of the hotel room.

For me, it’s hard to believe this sort of thing is still going on. Over twenty years ago, as a new employee of a nonprofit association of engineers, I was asked to go to the association president’s hotel suite to make last minute changes to his upcoming presentation. While I worked, the president took a shower and showed up in the room in which I was working in his robe. He was only checking on my progress, but it made me feel very uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough to take the matter to my boss, the association’s executive director, and get a change made that staff only work in the meeting rooms, and never be asked to go to an officer’s hotel room.

My client argues that a different facility, one with both enough hotel rooms and interview rooms, is not available. I’d suggest that the association look harder. However, if costs and logistics require that interviews be held in hotel room suites, I recommend that the association require (a) at least two residency program interviewers to be present during the interviews, (b) hotel room doors remain open, and, (c) interviews be video recorded (with the permission of the interviewee).

My client also found out by way of an off-hand comment, that one of its member colleges no longer sends students to certain clerkship programs due to concerns with harassment. This was the first time my client had heard about these concerns, and they asked me what to do. My client was wishing they had not heard about the issues, thinking the less they knew the better.

While you can’t fix what you don’t know about, in the court of public opinion “we didn’t know” doesn’t play well today. Associations should take reasonable steps to prevent harassment including:

(1) adopting, and widely distributing, a no tolerance policy with respect to harassment that details how complaints may be made and how complaints will be investigated;

(2) adopting a code of professional conduct that goes beyond illegal sexual harassment and provides required standards of professional conduct, and the types of conduct that are considered unprofessional and not tolerated;

(3) training staff, officers, directors and other program participants on the association’s policies and requirements, making clear the types of behavior that are not tolerated;

(4) periodically surveying staff, officers, directors, and program participants, specifically asking whether they have had, or know of, any problems, and making clear formal complaints may be made, and how complaints will be addressed.

Nonprofit associations must be proactive in providing a safe, and harassment-free, environment for their staff, members and on-site program participants.