Expert Advice

A 'Mind Your Own Business' Office Romance or Potential Sexual Harassment?

| Updated April 6, 2018

Sexual harrassment in the workplace

Nonprofit experts Gary G. Godsey, executive director of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, have teamed up to create MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the authors' personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I'm the executive director of a small nonprofit. Recently, I went to a restaurant and saw one of my board members having what was an obviously romantic dinner with our receptionist. I think they saw me, but I'm not sure. This board member is very involved in our charity and I appreciate all he does. Still, I don't think it's appropriate for him to date the receptionist — but I don't know how to proceed. I haven't said a word to anyone, but our receptionist seems to be avoiding me. What should I do?

Gary says ...

First order of business: Ask yourself why you want to be involved in this situation.

Does your organization have policies precluding board members from "seeing" staff? If not, step carefully in this space. After all, you're injecting yourself into a private situation. Unless this apparent relationship is causing problems for your organization or specifically impacting your employee, I don't see that you have much of a case.

If you still feel compelled to act, realize that you're making assumptions. Then speak with your board member privately. Just be sure you've crafted a message and have reasoning for the approach. Once you open Pandora's box, you can't turn back. You'll be forced to act, depending on what you find out. Make a plan and a process before you jump into the situation.

Kathryn says ...

I disagree. To me, "stepping carefully" in this space only reinforces problems that women (and sometimes men) have with harassment in the workplace.

A board member is an executive leader in a nonprofit and makes decisions that can impact line staff. Any romantic relationship between an executive leader and a staff member can put the entire organization at risk of future harassment claims. As well, these relationships can cause stress on your employee. If she's avoiding you, she might be feeling embarrassed — which is unfair to her.

What if she wants to stop seeing this board member about the time you have unrelated budget cuts that eliminate her job? She could interpret this as retribution. There are many other possible scenarios that could negatively impact the organization.

I'd absolutely contact your lawyer for advice, asking him or her to review your board bylaws, policies and applicable laws regarding sexual harassment. Then, I'd have a private conversation with the board member, spelling out the potential problems and asking the board member to end the relationship or resign from his board position. I'd follow that with a private conversation with the receptionist, assuring her that she did nothing wrong. You don't need tension with your receptionist, especially since she's the person you're legally and ethically bound to protect. Tell her that. Make sure she doesn't feel that she already has a grievance or that she was compelled to date the board member. Finally, document everything, date it and give it to your HR representative.

If you don't have a written policy about which types of personal relationships are OK and which are not, use this as an opportunity for your board to develop and approve such a policy.

Now, your take!

Donn H. says ... There will always be some legal justification for stopping almost anything that comes up in the workplace, and when you ask for legal advice, it is invariably of the risk-averse type. I agree with the first response. Do you really want to be the romance police and insert yourself into a private situation? While you're busy policing it, the argument between two employees you're potentially mediating goes unnoticed, and a potential law suit rears up to bite you there.

Create a productive, supportive workplace, think all of this through ahead of time, and have a strong, clear anti-harassment policy. Let mature adults live their lives.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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