By: Steven T. McFarland

Sexual harassment–big news recently–is being taken seriously by the courts. Churches, as well, need to face it. Definition: A church employee is sexually harassed when he or she is subjected to unwelcome comments, jokes, or anecdotes of a sexual nature. It includes insinuations that one’s job is dependent on physical features or compliance with the social invitations of the supervisor or employer.

Note: No overt proposition or physical touching is necessary. The prohibited hostile environment can be created by jokes, insinuations, or threats.

Who Is Legally Responsible?

If the harasser is top management (e.g., senior pastor), the church itself probably is liable. Also: The harasser can be held liable individually.

Note: If a nonsupervisory co-worker is the harasser, the church and its board can be legally responsible only if they should have known the harassment was taking place and failed to take reasonable measures to stop it.

Important distinction: Sexual-harassment claims usually are based on laws prohibiting sex discrimination in employment. These laws do not apply to volunteers. Caution: If the church administration or board is aware or suspects that a volunteer is harassing an employee, the volunteer’s misconduct can be imputed to the church. Also: Your church management has a duty to adequately supervise its staff to prevent unwelcome verbal or physical advances.

How Can It Be Prevented?

Adopt a policy prohibiting sexual harassment and establishing a confidential procedure for reporting it.

The policy must:

* Define sexual harassment, including several examples of how widely it extends.
* Unequivocally condemn any such comments or conduct. Advice: Use words like
prohibits and bans.

How to report:

* If the harasser is a co-worker or volunteer, the complainant should report it to his or her supervisor.
* If the harasser is the supervisor, complaints should be made to the senior pastor or chair of the governing board.

Key elements: The policy should provide a neutral ear regardless of who the alleged harasser may be (including the senior pastor).

In addition: The reporting procedure must be strictly confidential.

Also: Publicize the policy by:

* Putting it in writing.
* Giving it to every employee.
* Reviewing it with each new employee at the time of hiring.
* Posting a copy and showing it to volunteers.

Key: By publicizing and enforcing a policy-and-reporting procedure, you maximize your church’s legal defense against the claim that harassment was ignored.

(The above material appeared in the Mar./Apr. 1992 issue of Your Church magazine.)

Christian Information Network