Association Liability for Harassment at Meetings
Originally published in Association TRENDS magazine.
Consider this: An association employee attends the annual membership meeting. There is alcohol. A member becomes flirtatious with the employee and before anyone steps in, gropes her. Your organization cannot be held liable for conduct of a member, over whom you have no control, right?
What about this? A director makes comments at board meetings regarding his homophobic views. You have a staff member who attends these meetings who is gay. You can’t be liable for the board member’s conduct, right?
Employers have a duty to protect employees from discrimination and harassment – even by third parties not employed by the association, such as directors, officers and other volunteers. Even though you cannot “control” these individuals, there are steps you can take to protect your employees from harassment and your association from liability.
Step 1. Make sure your anti-harassment policy covers harassment and discrimination by third parties. This includes members, officers, board members, volunteers and even vendors.
Step 2. Educate your employees. Conduct annual discrimination and harassment training and make sure your employees know what to do in cases of third-party harassment. Training should include practical advice as to conduct during meetings and conferences, how to extricate themselves from uncomfortable situations and who to tell if they feel uncomfortable or have been harassed.
Step 3. Adopt a Board Code of Conduct. If you already have one, make sure it includes a solid anti-harassment policy. It’s a good idea for each board member to sign it.
Step 4. Conduct board training. Just like organizations should conduct management training, you should also train your board of directors. Ensure directors understand that the organization can have liability for their actions and the actions of members. Implement a reporting policy for incidents involving board members and members.
Step 5. Adopt a Member Code of Conduct. This can be posted on the website and in membership materials. The policy should include what conduct is prohibited and the consequences of engaging in such conduct.
Step 6. Monitor conduct. When at member meetings and board functions attended by staff, particularly when alcohol is involved, monitor conduct. If a member is getting too cozy with an employee, intervene early, before something happens.
Step 7. Investigate. If an employee brings a complaint, investigate it promptly.
Step 8. Protect the employee. If the conduct involved is serious, take immediate action and investigate later. If appropriate, contact the police and/or security.
Step 9. Take action. If the investigation results in a finding of misconduct, take appropriate action, regardless of whom the offender is.
Step 10. Document the complaint, findings and action taken and report the findings to the employee.
While associations cannot control third party conduct, if preventative measures are taken, employees can be protected from third-party harassment and your association can be shielded from liability.