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.