Complaining about Harassment

Multiple students said last year that they thought complaining about harassment would “ruin people’s lives.”  I feel like I don’t know where to begin, to correct this impression. And I can’t tell them no one’s life is ever negatively affected by being the object of complaint.  How to begin disrupting this? What steps have others taken?

First, “making a complaint” can take many forms.  Taking seriously the students’ concerns, one might recommend that they begin by speaking to a department chair, a college or university ombudsperson, a trusted senior colleague, or, if it is safe and appropriate, they can even approach the harasser directly.  In some small number of cases, this first step can bring about changes in harassers’ behavior, and there is not a lot of public visibility either for the complainant or the harasser.

Second, if we disagree with the legitimacy of the students’ concerns, it’s important to help them understand that (a) harassment can ruin its victims’ lives in a variety of ways, including but not limited to driving them from graduate or undergraduate programs and even the profession; and (b) the harasser is making a choice, often repeatedly making choices, about actions and behavior, and it is not the responsibility of victims or bystanders to protect the harasser from the consequences of those actions.  It’s important that complainants have some support network in place, and I think if you want to encourage students to make complaints when appropriate, then it would also be important to be part of such a support network.



3 thoughts on “Complaining about Harassment

  1. I agree with most of what Teal says, but I do think that the following needs to be pointed out. At most, if not all institutions in the U.S., a person in a “supervisory” position who is informed about any behavior that falls into the category of “harassment” or “hostile climate” is required by law to report this to their superior, in accordance with the protocol outlined in the institution’s regulations about sexual harassment. Teachers — and even graduate student TA’s — are considered “supervisors” for this purpose. And the protocols will say that at some point, the person reported to will have to take some kind of action. If the person who learns of the harassing, discriminatory, or hostile behavior does not follow the protocol, the institution and that individual become legally liable. So that complicates things.

    This sort of policy has bothered me for years, because it makes the focus of most sexual harassment “trainings” (I hate that syntax) the university’s legal position, and takes the focus away from stopping the harassment and helping the student. But when Fran Sepler (of Sepler Associates) gave the training at U Mass, I was gratified that she brought up this problem herself, and that she totally got it — the dilemma we faculty face when a student or colleague informs us about something bad that is going on, but then says “please don’t tell anyone.” What Fran recommends is that when a student begins such a report, that we stop the student, and explain that if the student tells us, we will be obliged to take steps, but that (a) that’s a good thing, because it means something will be done to stop whatever is going on, and (b) there are a variety of different responses that can be made, all of them sensible and proportionate, and (c) that if the student wants to speak to someone confidentially, that he or she can contact [fill in name of appropriate officer — counsellor, ombudsperson, whatever] who is not obliged to make any report.

  2. The vast majority of victims of harassment simply want the harassment to stop and to be able to continue their work on a professional basis with others at their institution. They don’t aim to punish perpetrators. They aim to change behavior. Any intelligent sexual harassment procedures at a university will be similarly designed with the same priorities in mind. Best practices include many alternatives other than sanctions severe enough to “ruin people’s lives.” But institutions will not be able to implement those practices effectively without information about the nature and sources of harassing behavior. To change behavior, victims need to come forward.

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