Something to Consider…

We previously asked church leaders about the following situation:

The church’s receptionist mentions to her boss that a church member regularly tells her sexually suggestive jokes even though she has told the church member that she does not appreciate them. This church member is one of the church’s largest donors.

How should the boss respond?

So how is the work atmosphere at your church? Is it pleasant, bursting at the seams with collegiality? Or are there toxic sub currents of intimidation and/or hostility, leading to an offensive work environment due to the presence of sexual harassment that is occurring?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits sexual harassment in every workplace with at least 15 or more employees. Now before you decide to stop reading because you don’t have 15 or more employees, allow us to make a couple of suggestions. First, your state may have laws on the books similar to Title VII that you have to obey, because they don’t have the 15-employee threshold. For example, in Missouri the state’s Human Rigts Act includes a threshold of only six employees. Second, learning how to prevent sexual harassment from occurring at your church may go a long way towards avoiding a work environment for your church staff where poor employee morale and low productivity exists. Besides, if you have a pre-school or similar ancillary program at your church, the number of employees they have may be considered included as part of your staff, resulting in the federal 15 employee threshold being met. Nevertheless, there are more it depends issues involved in determining your church’s status than we wish to take time to discuss here so you probably will want to consult with an attorney.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. As a result, any conduct of a sexual nature that makes an employee uncomfortable has the potential to be sexual harassment.

Two Types of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment includes at least two separate kinds of conduct. The first is where one’s employment status or opportunities for additional responsibilities and/or advancement become conditioned on submission to a sexual or social relationship. This is what is known as quid pro quo harassment and generally comes from one’s superior.

The second is hostile environment harassment and refers to the creation of an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment through unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This can come from a co-worker, a church member or even a person from outside the church who regularly calls on the church. This means that depending on the circumstances, an employer could potentially be liable for harassment by a nonemployee.

Churches that fail to prepare usually pay a very high price.
Frank Sommerville

Regardless of whether it is quid pro quo harassment or hostile environment harassment that occurs, it sure doesn’t sound like anyplace that a practicing Christian would want to work at. But both types happen. Not often, but they do happen.

In a survey of active Christian women that was taken in 2007approximately four percent of those polled said that they had experienced sexually inappropriate behavior in a church or ministry setting. Half of this group who said that they worked in a church or ministry setting reported that their employment was contingent upon dates or sexual favors. Not exactly the kind of work atmosphere that gives credibility to the Gospel message churches are entrusted with sharing.

Noted expert in church law and tax, attorney Frank Sommerville notes, Churches that fail to prepare usually pay a very high price. When sexual boundaries are crossed between church employees, the legal consequences can be significant. Juries tend to award larger damages to victims of sexual harassment within churches because they think church should be a safe place. Churches ignore this topic at their peril.

Often when one thinks of sexual harassment one thinks of a situation where a man harasses a woman. While the statistics support that the majority of the time, sexual harassment is a gender-neutral offense. Women can sexually harass men just as well. People of the same sex can also sexually harass each other. If the sexual harassment is based on sex and not sexual orientation it falls under Title VII protection. For example courts have held that Title VII is violated even when a man is harassed for having effeminate mannerisms and gestures.

Preventive Steps For Churches

So how can church leaders help prevent the devastation that can result from sexual harassment happening at the church, and how can they protect the church if it does? And keep in mind that such steps not only should apply to church employees, but also to volunteers who often do a large share of the work at a church.

After looking over our list of preventive steps, you may say to yourself that the hardest item for you to fulfill may be the employee training. But training is important for several reasons. First, it helps employees understand the limits of acceptable behavior and reduce the likelihood that they will cross the line. Second, it lets employees know that there is a process in place should they feel a need to report sexual harassment. To some employees it’s a comfort to them just knowing that they have a way to report sexual harassment. They may never need to, but the process is available if needed. Lastly, training programs have officially been recognized by the courts as a component of an employer’s active attempt to prevent harassment and to empower employees to protect themselves from harassment.

Sadly there is one situation where, despite taking all of the steps above, a church would be liable for sexual harassment regardless of whether or not church leaders were aware of the harassment. This is when a supervisor takes a tangible employment action against an employee in a situation of sexual harassment. Hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassigning with significant different responsibilities or a decision causing a significant change in benefits would all qualify as a tangible employment action.

If your church would like to be proactive in the fight against sexual harassment, contact us. We can put you in touch with experts who can guide you through the process or handle it entirely themselves. Remember, churches that take steps to assure a safe and protected work environment generally get the best performance from their paid staff, and by doing that, demonstrate good stewardship of the resources God has blessed them with.

Please Note: This information is provided with the understanding that Church Administrative Professionals is not rendering professional advice or service.

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Deborah Miller, cca

Charles Kneyse

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