What Happens if a Nonprofit Faces Allegations of Harassment?

No nonprofit board wants to consider the possibility of facing a lawsuit, but they do happen, and it is important to understand how to proceed. Unfortunately, many nonprofit lawsuits are mishandled and victims become even more outraged and angry, not only at the harasser but also at their employer. This was particularly likely if employers are slow to respond to allegations of harassment, allowing it to continue, or if the employer isolates the victim. A plaintiff’s lawyer can add this “response” to their client’s claim, which is considered retaliation.

Some harassers never intend to be insulting and claim they are “innocent”. However, harassment is subjective. If the harasser’s conduct or language can be considered “unwelcome” and create a hostile workplace for the victim, they could have an actionable claim. Be careful not to make any assumptions. Keep the investigation focused on the alleged conduct and how it affected the alleged victim.

Don’t Delay

Don’t wait for a formal complaint. You are responsible to conduct an investigation when the nonprofit knows or has reason to know that an employee is being subjected to discrimination, harassment, or other unlawful conduct in the workplace, even with no written complaints about witness statements. 

Harassers may intimidate their victims to an extent that victims become unwilling to cooperate with an investigation. If an employer learns of potential mistreatment, language, or conduct that sounds as if it could contribute to a hostile environment, the employer should verify whether those incidents are occurring or have occurred in the past by interviewing a variety of individuals who may be affected by the conduct, or have witnessed it. No matter the case, a prompt investigation is an appropriate response.

The Investigation 

A nonprofit lawsuit must be handled in a specific way. People expect to hear about the outcome of an investigation and if they don’t, it may be assumed that the nonprofit has something to hide. Representatives of the nonprofit may interview potential witnesses during an investigation, to see if they noticed any objectionable behavior. Don’t try to hide that there is an investigation during this process. Transparency will demonstrate that the nonprofit is acting in accordance with its own policies. 

It may be impossible to maintain complete confidentiality since an investigation usually includes testing the victim’s credibility. The harasser also has a right to confidentiality, since it’s possible that the allegations are false. There is no need to use names or share details about resulting consequences.

Protect the Victim and Others Involved

“Retaliation” is any adverse action taken by the employer or a supervisor against someone because the person filed a complaint of sexual harassment or participated in an investigation. Explain to the victim that the nonprofit will not retaliate, and will protect the victim from retaliation. A nonprofit lawsuit can take a major toll on operations, so it’s important to handle it in such a way that promotes a smooth process. 

Retaliation is a separate and equally serious violation of the nonprofit’s policy. It can take the form of leaving someone out of activities or decision-making that the person would normally participate in or refusing to provide a requested accommodation or terminating employment.

An allegation or claim of this type can be very sensitive, and must be handled delicately and wisely. A nonprofit insurance program will provide coverage for all of your operation’s exposures, including crime and employee dishonesty.

About David G. Sayles Insurance Services

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