More than 20 female former employees of United Way Worldwide have said that sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation is commonplace at the nonprofit. In a letter sent on Dec. 22 to the chairs of the organization’s boards of trustees, the women also said their opportunities at United Way were limited because of their gender.
The letter was a response to a HuffPost investigation into claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — the federal agency that handles civil rights charges — by three female former employees, who said the organization retaliated against them after they spoke up about sexual misconduct. Business Insider then reported on allegations of sexual misconduct from additional former employees.
The experiences relayed in HuffPost’s article “are not surprising nor unique,” the women wrote in a letter addressed to Neeraj Mehta, the chair of the United Way USA Board of Trustees, and Juliette Tuakli, the chair of the United Way Worldwide Board of Trustees.
“Each of us has either witnessed, experienced or been made aware of various levels of discrimination, harassment and/or retaliation for reporting such issues while employed at UWW.” [Read the full letter below.]
The letter writers, who did not sign their names due to nondisclosure agreements and/or fear of retaliation or professional consequences, said their collective time at United Way “spans more than two decades.”
Led by CEO Brian Gallagher, who played a significant role in the retaliation alleged by some of the women, United Way Worldwide is the umbrella organization for a global network of local charitable organizations, and is among the largest charities in the United States, with $3.7 billion in donations in 2019. Gallagher has been with the organization since 1981.
Former employees say United Way’s power and influence are vast. The nonprofit has longstanding partnerships with some of the most well-known companies and brands in the country, including UPS and the NFL. Former employees fear both career repercussions from speaking out against a huge player in the nonprofit sector and interfering with its good work in communities around the country. Right now, local United Way branches are playing a big role in COVID-19 relief efforts.
Still, more women are coming forward with revelations about the organization’s culture.
Jenn Novesky, who signed the letter and worked at the organization from 2005 to 2008, told HuffPost that she wanted former employees who were mistreated to know they are not alone.
In a post she shared on LinkedIn last week, Novesky, who now works at another nonprofit, said she experienced misogyny, sexism and “even so far as assault” while working at United Way. She declined to provide further details, saying it had happened a long time ago and she didn’t feel like she had enough hard evidence.
“Am I shaking while typing this? Absolutely. But what kind of advocate could I be for others if I don’t speak up for myself?” she wrote.
Novesky told HuffPost she went to human resources twice at United Way Worldwide to report on what had happened to her, only to be told to rethink whether she really wanted to come forward. United Way declined to comment on her claims.
United Way Says It’s Investigating, But Won’t Say How
United Way Worldwide’s boards did not respond to specific questions about the letter, and would only reiterate that they had launched an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation when HuffPost first reported this story in November.
“As shared before, United Way Worldwide (UWW) is deeply disturbed by any allegations of misconduct and is conducting a comprehensive investigation into our culture and the process by which the recent allegations of misconduct were handled,” the United Way Worldwide Board of Trustees and the United Way U.S.A. Board of Trustees said in an emailed statement.
The boards are “committed to completing the investigation as expeditiously as possible.”
But it’s not clear if any of the women who said they were mistreated have been contacted by investigators.
Novesky said no one from the nonprofit has gotten in touch with her about her claims, and none of the five former employees she was in contact with about the letter have heard from investigators either.
The three women featured in HuffPost’s initial article said they also have not heard from investigators.
“I haven’t been contacted and don’t anticipate I will be,” said Lisa Bowman, who filed an EEOC charge against United Way Worldwide last year, claiming she was fired after complaining about the behavior of a male executive. “They don’t want to hear the truth.”
“We all know what’s going to happen, they’ll go through the motions and say nothing was found,” another woman who has filed a charge against the company told HuffPost. She asked to remain anonymous, citing fear of career repercussions.
The Board Only Says It’s Committed To Diversity
Tuakli and Mehta, the board chairs, responded to the former employees in a letter obtained by HuffPost and dated Dec. 24. However, they did not address the claims of harassment, retaliation or discrimination, citing the ongoing investigation.
Instead, the board chairs said that United Way Worldwide is committed to diversity and “supporting women in the workplace.”
Their letter included statistics about the number of women employed at the organization, including, according to their internal data, the fact that 74% of promotions in the previous year went to women.
They also wrote that the nonprofit is committed to workplace flexibility, an issue that was not raised in the letter from former employees or in HuffPost’s investigation.
United Way’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is “central to our organization, and it manifests in our approach to investigating these allegations,” the letter says. “Anything less than the urgency we have shown to uncover the truth is unacceptable.”
The board chairs didn’t indicate any interest in interviewing the former employees about their experiences. United Way would not answer questions about the scope of the investigation. The organization has hired Proskauer Rose, a law firm that typically defends companies dealing with sexual harassment claims and has conducted investigations like this for other clients.
Hiring a firm like Proskauer Rose could indicate that a company is more interested in protecting itself from legal liability than in reforming its culture, said Paula Brantner, an employment attorney who consults with organizations conducting these types of investigations.
This is more about public relations than anything else. “It’s like a crisis communications response,” Brantner said.
Helping The Brand
In writing to the board, the women said their priority is to help United Way live up to its image as an organization committed to doing good work. Cleaning up its culture internally is a key part of that ideal.
“It takes healthy organizations to best serve communities. United Way should be the gold standard for maintaining a workplace environment free of discrimination and harassment,” they wrote.
In their letter, the women make specific suggestions for reforms, including reporting any discrimination charges to the board, creating an independent committee to review complaints and releasing employees from nondisclosure agreements — “which have been widespread” — so they can talk to the board.
At least one former employee, Ana Avendaño, has written to CEO Brian Gallagher seeking to be released from her NDA, Avendaño told HuffPost.
She has not yet heard back.
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