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Are You Protecting Your Staff From Sexual Harassment?

by Bethany L. Hawkins, Chief of Operations, AASLH on

Since the allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein surfaced, the topic has dominated the news cycles with more and more famous persons and political leaders answering to accusations of misconduct in relation to colleagues, acquaintances, and clients. Unfortunately, sexual harassment and assault is not limited to the world of entertainment and politics.

A quick Google search of the topic and museums brings up a list of several incidents that have occurred in our field. Sessions at the American Alliance of Museums conference and AASLH’s Annual Meeting in 2017 included candid discussions by women in our field sharing very personal stories of harassment experienced throughout their career. The #metoo movement also showed me female (although many males are victims as well) friends and colleagues through Facebook and Twitter who bravely admitted their experiences with this very sensitive topic.

As history organizations, we are not immune to the scourge of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace just because we work for nonprofit organizations with lofty missions. We need to be paying close attention to the important issues brought out of the shadows into the harsh light of reality over the last few weeks. Executives and managers, in particular, need to be sure we are leading by example to make sure none of our co-workers can say #metoo at our organizations under our watch.

So, what can we do to protect our colleagues against sexual harassment and unwanted advances in our organizations?

  1. Educate yourself as to what constitutes sexual harassment. You may think it is easy to define, but can be complicated with a lot of legal lines that can be crossed before you know it.
  2. Create a strong written sexual harassment policy for your museum or history organization. As nonprofit organizations, the policy should include board members as well as paid staff and volunteers. Make sure it is approved by your board or governing body and included in your employee handbook if you choose not to make it a stand-alone policy.
  3. Talk about it. Silence is what allows harassment to fester and allows offenders to move from organization to organization undetected. Include your policy in your employee handbook and in board and employee orientation, but also address it at staff meetings. This creates an open environment that makes it easier for victims to approach someone for help.
  4. Don’t laugh at or encourage inappropriate jokes. It can be funny in the moment, but contributes to a hostile work environment. This also includes making sure office parties or gatherings are appropriate. Your staff should know that your policies for dress code and behavior from the office extend to after-hours gatherings as well.
  5. Respond to reports of sexual harassment immediately and be sure your policies protect the reporter from retaliation. This helps limit your liability, but most importantly, it lets your employees know you care about their protection.

As historians, we often do not have training in human resource matters, but, as the last few weeks have shown us, topics like sexual harassment are extremely important for us to address and have the potential to destroy lives, as well as our credibility with the community. If you need help developing a sexual harassment policy for your organization, there are samples available from fellow history organizations and museums (including AASLH). If you don’t have a policy or haven’t reviewed yours in a while, make it a priority. It can no longer wait.

Sample Policies
AASLH
Billings Farm and Museum (VT)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (DC)

Additional Resources
Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace by Joan H. Baldwin and Anne W. Ackerson
Human Resource Policies and Procedures for Nonprofit Organizations by Carol L. Barbeito
The Nonprofit Human Resource Management Handbook: From Theory to Practice by Jessica K.A. Wood and Jessica E. Sowa
The Question of Gender: The ‘Unseen’ Problem in Museum Workplaces” by Joan H. Baldwin published by AAM’s Alliance Labs blog
Tips for Crafting a Sexual-Harassment Policy to Protect Nonprofit Workers” by Ronald Hube in The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Managing People and Projects in Museums: Strategies That Work by Martha Morris

As sexual harassment policies have legal implications, you are strongly encouraged to also consult an attorney and/or expert in human resources before adopting any policy.

Bethany L. Hawkins is the Chief of Operations for the American Association for State and Local History. She can be reached at hawkins@aaslh.org.

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