Talking About Sexual Harassment in the Profession What Can You Do?

publication date: Oct 23, 2017
author/source: Beth Ann Locke and Chris Griffin

Trigger warning: These articles were difficult to write and may be very difficult to read.

Through a survey on sexual harassment, harassment and bullying, we asked people in the profession to share stories that go into specific and sometimes heartbreaking detail.

When we consider the problem of high turnover in the industry, as highlighted in reports such as UnderDeveloped by CompassPoint, we believe it glosses over two of the biggest reasons people leave: sexual harassment and bullying. We believe it is important to surface this discussion to let those who have experienced or are experiencing abuse, bullying and harassment know that they are not alone. We also want to offer tools and resources and empower allies to step up and advocate for those who may not be in a position to advocate for themselves.

Below are two stories that could be familiar or completely unfamiliar, but they are the experiences of two AFP members.

His story:

I was excited about moving to Los Angeles. I had a place to stay in the Hollywood Hills and had lined up a job as a development assistant at a large LGBT service provider that was a power player, not just in Los Angeles but nationally. On my very first day, my boss, the director of development, called me into his office to take notes while he ate his breakfast, spitting bits of egg while outlining the day. I was grossed out, but mostly, I felt sorry for him, as he seemed to be completely awkward in this place that was full of people who were well put together, ambitious and cool.

The daily morning meetings continued, and I trained myself to avert my eyes and sit out of “spitting range,” but then there was a pat on the knee. Again, my initial response was pity for someone so awkward and, I assumed, affection-starved. I also started questioning myself. I’ve always dressed a little “funky” and am somewhat gender fluid, so did I deserve this? I certainly wasn’t inviting it. Did this go with the territory of being outside the norm? The touching continued—nothing overtly sexual, but with increasing frequency. I started to find ways to put physical distance between my boss and me. In departmental meetings, I would sit as far from him as I could.

A co-worker noticed that, although I was not completely closed off, I was much less open than when I started. When he asked me about it, I told him what was happening. But I downplayed it: “I’m sure he means nothing by it. You know, he’s just so awkward that I’m sure he’s unaware of what he’s doing.”

“You need to start writing these incidents down,” my co-worker replied. I realized I needed to take this more seriously. In a meeting a few weeks later between my boss, my co-worker and me, my co-worker noticed as I quickly dodged an arm around the waist. After the meeting, that trusted co-worker pulled me aside and said that we needed to tell the CEO. I didn’t want to put myself in that position. I was new, and despite the problems, I liked what I was doing, felt impactful and didn’t want to add even more stress to an already strained environment. “Surely, he’ll get the message,” I said. I asked my co-worker not to say anything. “OK, but I’m documenting it now,” he told me. For a while, it seemed as if my boss did get the message, and the touching stopped.

I can’t recall the exact details of this day, but I remember that the organization was responding to a smear campaign that equated being gay with child molestation. My boss asked, “You were never molested as a child, were you?” My stomach dropped. “No,” I quickly and quietly replied. He walked up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Because,” he said, “that’s such an attractive thought.” I froze. Mercifully, the phone rang, and he took the call.

I walked down the hall to my co-worker’s office in tears and told him what had happened. My co-worker told me not to go back to my office. Instead, he would tell our boss that he had sent me on an errand and that he was going to speak with the CEO. I left the office and called in sick the next day. The next week, we moved offices to a larger space, and I was relieved that my office was further away from my boss. About a month later, we all came in one morning to notes from our boss thanking us for our work but saying he would be pursuing “another opportunity closer to home.” I felt a little confused, a little overwhelmed with new responsibilities, but I also felt hopeful.

A new director of development was hired, and he seemed to fit the LA mold a little better. I felt like I was finally getting the hang of this place and was dating someone I had met through a community-related event. One day, my date stopped by the office after our lunch, and my new boss asked who he was, and I told him. “He’s handsome,” my new boss said. “And taken,” I added, with as much “hands-off” subtext as I could. The following week, my date popped into my office again, and he mentioned to me that my boss had intercepted him on his way in, chatted my guy up and asked him out on a date! I couldn’t believe that not only had I been subjected to harassment, but now someone I dated was being subjected to it as well through association. I went to another friend in the organization, who was second in command, and told her what happened. There was a subsequent staff sensitivity training, but by then, I had already lost faith in the organization. I decided to leave the organization and Los Angeles altogether.

Her story:

I was thrilled to be taking a new job in a nearby city as director of annual giving and events. I was hired by the president of the hospital foundation and, around the same time, so was the vice president of major and planned gifts. “That’s quite a young team,” my mentor pointed out, which at the time I interpreted as a wonderful new horizon of new ideas that would make us very successful. But later, I realized my mentor may have been trying to warn me.

Both the president and the VP had been in fraternities, and sometimes the comments would be a bit off-color. I just looked down and didn’t participate in these comments, not having been part of the Greek system myself. There were also rivalries between these two, and after a few months, the VP requested that I report to him. We clashed (he was a micromanager), and I asked the foundation president if I could return to reporting to him. I did, and things settled for a few months. Then the VP wanted me to report to him again, and the president agreed. This change in reporting continued a few more times and was very stressful for me.

One day my boss, the VP, came into my office and shut the door. I wondered what nitpicking thing he was going to tell me to do or correct. Instead, he came behind my desk, grabbed my wrist and pulled my hand toward his crotch. I yanked my hand back in shock. Through his trousers, he firmly held his erection and said, “This is what you do to me.” I was horrified and frozen. “Just so you know,” he said and left. I closed my door, leaned on it and felt sick. I stayed until 5 p.m. and went to pick up my daughter. I was so upset. After she was in bed, I called a friend and tearfully relayed what happened. “You have to speak to HR,” my friend said.

The next day, I called human resources to explain what happened and made an appointment to speak in person. Little did I know that this was a big mistake. They told me I needed to tell the foundation president. So I walked across the hospital to his office, closed the door and sat down. My entire body began to tremble uncontrollably while I told him what happened. I felt somehow ashamed, and tears were leaking out of my eyes. He expressed surprise but believed me.

It was the next day that HR set up a meeting with the three of us at 7 a.m. There was a scolding about our collective behavior. The VP was told to take three days off without pay, and I would permanently report to the foundation president. With the VP’s abrupt disappearance, the rest of the office knew something had gone down but not what exactly, and suspicion fell to me. Things were very tense.

A few weeks later, I had a visit to my office from the hospital lawyer. “I think it would be much better if you looked for a job somewhere else,” he said. With few resources and family living far away, I felt alone, scared and as if I was the one in the wrong. Eventually, I moved to a job 200 miles away in the middle of the school year just to get away.

What can you do if you’re working with a colleague experiencing this or if you are experiencing it yourself?

Tell the person to stop, and remove yourself from the situation or area. If you are able, tell the harasser at that moment, “No, don’t do that,” “I don’t want you to touch me,” “That makes me feel uncomfortable,” and/or “I don’t feel that I can be here right now.” These phrases can be difficult to conjure up in the moment, but you don’t need to explain yourself other than that. If there are additional power and privilege issues at play (for instance, many mentioned being touched, grabbed or propositioned by a donor or board member), it can feel difficult to say something. If you cannot say something in the moment, say something afterward or ask to be removed from the interaction. Connect with a trusted colleague or friend. You have people who care about you. Connect with a friend or a trusted colleague to talk about the experience. It can also be helpful to speak with someone who can corroborate your experience. Document what is happening from the first moment. In the second experience mentioned, not having a solid documentation caused the hospital attorney to suggest, “It must not have been that bad.” If it turns out that nothing else ever happens, you can toss that documentation. Don’t document on a work computer. Use something only you have access to. Don’t blame yourself. It is easy to wonder, “Did I do something to encourage that?” Harassers will look for opportunities and often have already abused others you don’t know about. You should not be subjected to unwanted conduct, and if you have a challenge setting boundaries with a particular person, enlist help.

If you are a manager, co-worker or friend:

Many of the sexual harassment stories in the survey came from more experienced fundraisers who reflected on earlier days. More experiences make a person attuned to potential trouble for him- or herself. Also, more seasoned fundraisers should keep a watchful eye on their colleagues, whether they report directly to them or not. If you see something or hear something, say something. Discrimination, sexual harassment and bullying thrive when they are hidden and grow because of fear and shame. Inappropriate touching or comments often happen when others are out of range, but like in the first story, inquire about how you can help if you see something you don’t think is right. Use your privilege to stop the abuse. Speak up and say, “Stop.” Be aware, and use your privilege (your title, your level of responsibility, your dominant culture) to stop unwanted advances on younger, less experienced and less privileged colleagues. Become “that person” who will intervene and report. Help them document by documenting yourself what they tell you and what you have seen or experienced yourself. Recognize that talent is being wasted as long as the abuse continues. People being harassed are unable to work at their optimal performance levels. The fear and/or disgust may have already spread to others you don’t know about. Understand the power of fear. As in both stories, your colleague may be afraid of losing his or her job or may not have resources (financial, emotional) to fight this on their own. Even for jurisdictions with strong whistle-blower laws, organizations can and may retaliate. Don’t give abusers a pass. Sometimes, those who are high-performers have been with a nonprofit a long time (and are valued for their institutional knowledge) or are “friends” with higher-ups and allowed to continue so as not to “upset the apple cart.” Remember that the AFP Code of Ethical Standards (adopted in 1964, amended October 2014) states that members shall: 

#1: not engage in activities that harm the members’ organizations, clients or profession, or knowingly bring the profession into disrepute.

#2: not engage in activities that conflict with their fiduciary, ethical and legal obligations to their organizations, clients or profession.

Sexual harassment is defined, according to the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as follows: “It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include ‘sexual harassment’ or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” The Government of Canada enforces the Canada Labour Code, which states in part: “Everyone is entitled to protection from sexual harassment while on the job. The Canada Labour Code defines sexual harassment as any: conduct, comment, gesture or contact of a sexual nature.”

A few facts from the survey:

  • Most harassment as reported in the survey happened in large shops (60 percent).
  • Ninety-five percent who noted sexual harassment are women (not a surprise in a heavily female profession).
  • Forty percent of the sexual harassers are executives/C-suite or VPs.
  • Of the respondents to the survey, over 50 percent are at the director or manager level, and 35 percent are at the coordinator or assistant level. Relating to sexual harassment, about 25 percent are direct reports, and 75 percent are not.

We know not every fundraiser has been subjected to harassment, discrimination or abuse. But many have, and the effects are devastating, never mind the loss of productive energy, team cohesion and sick days.

Beth Ann Locke found her calling as a fundraiser in 1991 and has relished connecting with donors ever since. She enjoys helping fundraisers work with donors as they create a better world. Beth Ann is director of advancement at Simon Fraser University, a board member of AFP Vancouver, and a member of the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy—Canada.

Chris Griffin is product development coordinator and editorial assistant for Advancing Philanthropy at AFP. Outside of AFP, he is involved in the performing arts, including theater, music, video, podcasting, sideshow (fire-eating and straight jacket escape) and circus (partner-balancing, static trapeze, lyra and and cyr wheel). He lives in D.C. with his Chihuahua, Ramon.

Editors note: This article was originally published by Advancing Philanthropy. Hilborn thanks AFP for the opportunity to highlight this important issue. 

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