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The Ethicist Raises Great Issues

Dear Engaged Bystander:  With only one week to go in my blogging, I wanted to reflect back on some issues and articles I missed along the way.  Do you ever wish you had said something but didn't?  Well, there is one article that has stuck in my mind for a while now. A letter to the Ethicist appeared in the NY Times Magazine section a few weeks ago


Here is the letter and the response: 


As a female board member of a nonprofit organization, I volunteered to type for an infirm elderly male board member on a book project whose proceeds would benefit the organization. But he leaned on me, followed me around and touched me inappropriately. These were no accidental slips; he is not senile, nor does he touch or lean on male colleagues. Furthermore, several female volunteers have quit in the past, all citing different reasons. I do not wish to embarrass him, but I am being criticized for no longer typing for him. Should I tell the board about the issue of the old man and the hands, as another will undoubtedly be asked to take my place? What if I inform them and they don’t do anything but laugh? NAME WITHHELD


Reading your letter, I kept expecting to hear you express some doubt. But it seems you have arrived at some very clear positions: the man’s behavior was inappropriate, it is part of a larger pattern and you will no longer stand for it. Rightly so. Whether his behavior merits the legalistic term “sexual harassment” or the more colloquial “creepy,” it is clearly not what you signed up for when you offered to do a favor for him and, by extension, the organization.


Weak as he is, he had you in a tough spot; you were “volunteering” because your organization asked you to, so that it might benefit from his largess. Which is why it’s fitting to bring your concerns to the board instead of trying to address them with him. Quickly, before the board sends any other volunteers into the same awkward fix. As an added benefit, speaking up will explain your decision to quit typing, which your fellow board members might otherwise regard as selfish.

The real question then is your last one: What if your organization doesn’t do anything? What if, as you say, they laugh? Volunteering for a group that is willing to take advantage of your generosity but not take seriously your experience is a nonprofit proposition. If it comes to that, walk right out the door.



This article lingered for me for two reasons.  First, I thought that the response was good -- and I like to highlight these public conversations whenever possible.  But I also felt that the writer deserved more clear affirmation for her insights and concrete suggestions for what to ask for.  In many cases people and organiations do not respond because they are not sure what to do.  In this case, I would suggest that she consider the following requests:

  • Someone on the board should talk directly with the board member in question about his specific behaviors as well as appropriate and inappropriate ways to treat male and female colleagues.  The board should also set out clear consequences if this kind of behavior is continued in any way.
  • The board should issue a formal apology and a letter of thanks to the board member who did come forward with her concerns. 
  • The board put on their agenda for future meetings a clear policy about sexual harrassment and about appropriate touch in the work setting. (If this does not exist)

There are other options as well, depending upon what other behaviors come to light.  And again, I am so glad that these questions are being raised and we all need to highlight the cases where people are opening these conversations.



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