We asked our board to discuss the issue of sexual harassment. This is what happened:

Creative Commons via Forbes.com

By Deborah A. Baron

It’s all around us these days. #me too. A recognition in every domain; television, business, pop culture and politics that this has been going on too long and it’s time to stop. This shift in recognizing an issue that has been impacting way too many of us for far too long, led us to ask, “What about in our own backyard?” How do we discuss our own realities and expectations? And, how do we ensure a Jewish Federation culture in which each and every individual is treated with respect and in which each and every one of us takes responsibility for that culture.

We had discussed the issue of harassment with our staff, reviewed our internal policy and made plans for some additional training. Now what about the board? What is a board’s role and responsibility to ensure a culture free of sexual harassment, of harassment of any kind, where power dynamics do not give implicit permission for undesired conduct?

Our current policy reads as follows:

…“The Federation will not tolerate harassment of its employees by anyone, including any manager, supervisor, co-worker, visitor, vendor, or guest.”

Does that include the board? Good question. And, what about the board’s commitment to each other? Definitely missing.

We began by asking ourselves, “What resources are available to help us frame this conversation?”

We contacted our local JFCS (Jewish Family and Community Services). “Would you be willing to facilitate this discussion for our board?” we asked. “We don’t feel qualified to make recommendations,” they answered. “This isn’t actually our area of expertise.”

“We don’t want recommendations, we’d like a facilitator,” we answered. “We think this is an important topic for the board to discuss. We want them to have an open conversation – to give them an opportunity to explore the role they play in preventing unwanted behavior.”

A day later, I got a phone call from JFCS. “The more we’ve thought about it, the more we love the idea of your board having this discussion. In fact, we think the questions go even deeper. How do power and the potential misuse of power impact the volunteer/employee relationship? What opportunity is there for volunteers to commit to the highest level of respectful behavior? And, by the way, while we are happy to help frame this conversation, we don’t think we are the right individuals to facilitate. We would like to suggest that one of your board members facilitate in order to create a peer to peer discussion.”

Fortunately, we have more than one board member who is skilled in facilitation. A single phone call brought a new partner into the conversation who added perspective and context: What is our written policy? What are our expectations in terms of the policies and practices of our beneficiary agencies? Let’s make sure this isn’t our only conversation on this topic, but rather that this is a first of many.

We thought we would need to warm them up to the discussion, but they jumped right in. The statements our board members made and the questions they asked each other convinced me that we opened the conversation at the right time and in the right way, in spite of the fact that it raised more questions than answers:

“The times have changed.”

“The definition of acceptable behavior has changed.”

“How do we incorporate a new way of thinking, acting and behaving into our on-boarding of board members?”

“We already have a conflict of interest statement that deals with one type of conduct, so how do we incorporate respectful conduct into a more robust and all-encompassing statement?”

“How do we educate our volunteers so that they can’t say, ‘I didn’t know’?”

“How do we broaden the scope of our sexual harassment discussion so that we are modeling the highest level of behavior and not just focusing on ‘acceptable behavior’?”

“We may need to address more than sexual harassment; all harassment has to do with the abuse of power and power dynamics. This also ties in with inclusivity and our attitudes and actions toward openness to all.”

“What is our Jewish framework – our Jewish context for all of our discussions, actions and conduct?”

We then flipped the coin over and talked about what we didn’t want from a board agreement. We have a warm culture in our community. We hug hello and kiss on the cheek. We care about each other and show our affection. How do we retain that warmth while still ensuring a culture of respect? How do we allow individuals to say “no” when they feel uncomfortable … or better, ensure that everyone receiving affection has said “yes.”

The lawyers in our group asked some important questions as well. What is legally acceptable versus culturally acceptable? Does putting policies in writing open us to new risk or reduce risk?

We have recently instituted a formal governance committee. One of the roles of that committee is to identify strategic issues for the board. Ultimately, the following request was sent to the governance committee:

“Please draft a board member agreement, a brit, that outlines expectations of behavior. What happens if “X” happens, and how do you complain? How does someone follow up? How is the complaint investigated? We’d like to make a statement that says, “In our Jewish Community, these are our standards.”

The board discussion concluded with a broader scope:

“How do we continue to change our culture? Just writing it down doesn’t necessarily create change. How do we continue the conversation?”

“How do we incorporate and continue to speak of values that include the highest level of conduct and respect as a theme?”

“Can we learn from the experiences of others and the experiences of related issues like race?”

“Writing the policy is easy; the real question is, ‘What are we going to do about it?’”

I had several take-aways from this board session that could apply to other Jewish organizations. The discussion was not as fraught as we might have feared. Most board members appreciated and agreed upon the importance of discussing sexual harassment. When considering relationships between staff and donors, between board members and staff, among board members themselves and between board members and donors, we face a complicated environment in which to explore how to prevent unwanted attention. Most critically, we made the right decision to open the discussion.

As our facilitator/board member pointed out in her opening comment, this isn’t the end of the discussion, but merely the beginning. It is a change of culture on which we are embarking and this is the first time that we, as a board, are examining our role in impacting this aspect of Federation culture. It is tikkun olam (repair of the world) in its very essence; the fostering of a culture in which no one in the Federation community will ever feel the need to say #me too again.

And, on a personal note, a special thank you to our board and especially our board chair, for their willingness to take on this issue with such passion and caring and to our CEO who closed the discussion with a singular commitment to hold this as his personal responsibility.

Deborah A. Baron is the Chief Operating Officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh; she is also a Certified Leadership and Executive Coach.