CalNonprofits Articles

Nearly half of American women report being sexually harassed in the workplace

Frequent headlines about sexual harassment give all of us a chance to reflect on the issue in our own lives and the nonprofits where we work and volunteer. Staff, clients, volunteers, and board members can all be impacted by this issue.

It's also worth noting a number of nonprofits focus on harassment directly, whether it's through providing services to people who have been impacted, education, or through advocacy for stronger laws to prevent it. This article provides an overview of how nonprofits should respond to the problem of harassment and highlights some of the ways the California legislature is addressing this issue.


Responding to Harassment

Nonprofits have a responsibility to:


1. Protect their clients and constituents
Ensuring that staff and volunteers do not harass or bully clients, patrons or constituents 
Standing up for constituents who have been harassed

2. Protect employees

Protecting staff and volunteers from harassment by staff in positions of authority
Protecting staff and volunteers from harassment by people outside the organization, such as donors

3. Protect the organization

Protecting the nonprofit from lawsuits related to sexual harassment

California Law Basics

First, what is California law about sexual harassment? “Sexual harassment is unwanted sexual advances, or visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” according to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Examples include offering employment in exchange for sexual favors, inappropriate physical conduct, and verbal abuse of a sexual nature. There’s a good fact sheet here.

Training: employers — including nonprofits — with 50 or more employees are required to train new supervisors on sexual harassment prevention and train all supervisors every two years. Although the training requirement can be satisfied by having employees take online courses, many nonprofits have found that in order to be effective, training needs to be part of a program that includes discussion, concrete guidelines and suggestions, and attention to organizational climate. The goal is for all employees to know what sort of behavior is unacceptable and how to respond should an issue arise.

Sexual harassment and other forms of harassment and bullying Sexual harassment is about someone inappropriately using their power or authority over another for sexual or other reasons. And, sexual harassment doesn't happen in isolation. Bullying or harassment can also happen based on race or ethnicity, religion, disability/ability, and other characteristics. Nonprofits should look at relationships among staff, volunteers and clients/constituents where power is unequal, and consider what safeguards can be implemented to keep those relationships from being abused.

Empowering Victims and Bystanders

Although it’s important for people who feel sexually harassed to speak out, it’s often difficult for them to do so. Bystanders can also play a role. For instance, if a staff person makes a sexual joke towards a visitor in the lobby, a nearby staff person might say, “Hey! Cool it!” and later tell that person’s supervisor about the offensive behavior. If you observe inappropriate behavior, speak out to the perpetrator, but also turn to the victim and start to talk, perhaps steering her out of the room or just giving her someone else to talk to at the moment. There's some debate about the best way to respond, and often it's not to confront the abuser directly in public, but to instead engage the victim. The American Association of University Women has a helpful guide: "Colleague's Guide: What's My Role?"

California Legislature Responds

The California State Legislature has begun to respond to this problem. For example, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson introduced SB 224, which would update sexual harassment laws to include harassment by investors, elected officials, lobbyists, directors, or producers. In October, nearly 150 women who work at the Capitol signed a letter speaking out against sexual assault and harassment. In early December, the California State Assembly held a special hearing to find ways to better handle claims made by legislative staff and lobbyists of sexual misconduct and harassment. Senator Connie Leyva, one of the signers of the October letter, introduced SB 820 at the beginning of this year to ban secret sexual assault and harassment settlements.

Assemblymember Laura Friedman explained that men need to recognize how power dynamics can play into harassment: “A lot of these men, if you ask them, they would say, this is absolutely consensual, without realizing there is a power hierarchy that is absolutely unequal, and they should not participate in that.”

We expect more bills will be introduced as the legislative session gets into full swing.

Resources: If you are a CalNonprofits member, a valuable member benefit is free access to Mineral (formerly ThinkHR, including Think HR Live (live experts available to answer HR questions), a resource center with forms, tools, and compliance checklists, and ThinkHR Learn Pro’s library of training and compliance courses (including some just for nonprofits).  (If you need help logging into your ThinkHR account, please contact Karina Paredes-Arzola at Another resource is the Sexual Harassment FAQs from the CA Dept. of Fair Employment and Housing.  

(image credit: TIME'S UP).

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