How to resolve a harassment case?
September 7, 2016 7:29 AM   Subscribe

I am in a young-ish lecturer at a UK university, and I'm trying to "broker" a solution to an incident of sexual harassment.

A post-doc researcher at work has told me in confidence that a PhD student pulled her arm and went in for a kiss as she was leaving the office. This was not a friend and there was no ambiguity about the appropriateness of this action. The post-doc and PhD student both work in a large, shared work space. I suggested that we re-arrange work spaces to separate them, essentially breaking up the shared work space and making use of other shared offices. That way, the post-doc would feel safe and would probably (as she indicated) report the incident so that we could respond by confronting the PhD student, though I don't really know what such a confrontation entails. Another possibility would be give the post-doc her own office, but she has indicated that she doesn't want to be separated from her network by being on her own.

The guy in charge of the shared work space (a full professor, so well above me in terms of "pull") doesn't like the idea of re-organizing people and would rather I re-assure the person (he doesn't know who it is) that we would respond to such a complaint by isolating the perpetrator and not the person who complained. I haven't gone back to her yet about this, because I suspect that she will feel that this is too drastic and might have negative consequences for her, not just because of bad feelings on the part of the perpetrator himself, but because she may be seen as "difficult" by others and she is quite early in her career. I'm worried that if this is the proposed response, she will not want to report the incident.

I don't know what to do now. I could push harder for the space re-organization in an upcoming meeting about other "equalities issues" (there have been several recently) with our head of department. I could justify a re-org in a number of ways, but I know that at the other professor is against it and I'm not sure that it is the best solution. I could approach the post-doc again about whether she wants to make the report given the expected consequences (I sort of suspect she will not). I'm concerned that if this happens there will be no repercussions for the perpetrator. I'm especially worried because I've been aware of two rapes at other institutions where I have worked and I felt that the institutional response was lacking and therefore fostered an environment where harassment and assault were made more likely.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Why are you so focused on moving their desks around when you haven't even asked the victim if she wants that? You/someone need to move promptly on confronting the harassing student and, if possible, getting the incident documented by your institution. But the focus should be on communicating to the PhD student that a) this behavior is completely unacceptable and b) (if his supervisor isn't considering dropping him like a hot potato on just this) any additional inappropriate behavior towards women, either within his group or elsewhere in the university, will jeopardize both his candidacy and his professional career.

Your actual institution's guidelines for dropping a student in this situation may vary, but seriously: figure them out (call your ombuds!), put that fucker on notice already and stop obsessing about rearranging desk chairs when this whole boat is aiming straight for a giant harassment case iceberg.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:43 AM on September 7, 2016 [24 favorites]

While reading, I actually came to the same solution as your colleague: to isolate the perpetrator. If you have a space available, and the postdoc doesn't want to be the one who is isolated (which is totally fair!), I think it's worth proposing this to the postdoc as a solution and see what she thinks about it. Maybe she's fine with it and the solution is simpler than it seems.

However, I don't really understand why she would only report if they both stay in the shared space and not if the PhD student was isolated? She should report, either way. Most UK universities have a harassment policy in place.
posted by easternblot at 7:45 AM on September 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

Definitely review the institutional policy on stuff like this and work that system. I don't think you should be trying to police this on your own; it's not fair to assume upfront that the systme will fail. Also, where I work (not in the UK), we are advised that all staff should report incidents as they become aware of them, even if they weren't the victim.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:45 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes, independent of anything else you now have to watch out for yourself.

Seconding superhero, there may be mandatory reporting rules, and if there are, you may already be afoul. No matter what decisions get made, I recommend reporting ASAP.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:02 AM on September 7, 2016

do not try to solve this problem yourself, it is not your job. It is one thing to support the post-doc in making a complaint, which should involve immediately familiarising yourself with the harassment protocols in your institution, it is another to decide to act outside of that framework, and it could get both of you in trouble.

If you don't know who to go to - her line manager, your local equality/diversity officer, or the UCU rep are starting points.
posted by AFII at 8:09 AM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

As others have said (and I also lecture at a UK university), there are almost certainly institutional procedures in place for handling situations like this, and there may be implications for not following them.
posted by Hogshead at 8:10 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another to think about, female victims always seem to be the people moved and isolated.
posted by shesbenevolent at 8:12 AM on September 7, 2016 [14 favorites]

It should not be the job of the victim of sexual harassment to figure out how to punish a perpetrator. She should not be affected at all (how incredibly shitty to suggest she should have to change/move around her life because she got attacked!). The full professor needs to know who the perpetrator is now (what possible excuse is there for keeping his identity secret but not hers??) And - if he's not going to be reported officially (which he should be) - he needs to at least be punished internally - separated from the group, banned from doing work that she is involved in, even if that means delaying or making Very Very Hard his graduation (sucks to be him - actions have consequences). And confronted immediately - another thing that does not require an official complaint. Is his PI unwilling to manage him? If so, the PI should get some training too.
posted by brainmouse at 8:21 AM on September 7, 2016 [16 favorites]

Isolate the perp now. Reorganize to put him away from other people. It is within your purview to do this. Don't explain it widely -- just do it. People will surmise what they need to. Tell the perp to keep his mouth shut, and he'll be lucky to 'only' be isolated. No one will know it was based on a incident with the postdoc.

Then. Once he's isolated, then you ask the post-doc whether she'd like to go forward.
posted by Dashy at 8:27 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

And seconding what Hogshead said: there are procedures, and for us we MUST report things like this. Follow them, cover your arse.
posted by Dashy at 8:31 AM on September 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

It sounds like a) you have no authority to do anything here and b) you have only one side of the story.

When I worked for a Fortune 500 company and called some guy on his crap, it was reported to HR by my boss and we were each interviewed separately before any decision was made. I was not told what was done, but I suspect he was sent for sensitivity training. We continued to work together and, for a time, he clearly felt threatened by me and angry at me. I went out of my way to prove that, while I expected him to treat me appropriately, I was not out to get him. It worked and we were able to establish a mutually respectful working relationship.

I assume you have an HR department. I suggest you request a meeting and find out how such things are handled without giving up info if you aren't required to do so. I was entirely satisfied with the handling of the incident at my place of employment.

If you really want to advocate for change, it would be better for you to do some research generally to find existing best practices and try to promote those in some manner. Making this minor incident into some test case when you do not seem to be armed with good solutions is not likely to go good places.
posted by Michele in California at 9:47 AM on September 7, 2016

Why are you even trying to solve this issue? It will come back to haunt you.
This is something you should report through the appropriate channels and let them deal with it. There are entire departments in universities that are dedicated to handling these scenarios.
posted by WizKid at 9:49 AM on September 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

As a non-faculty employee of a large US university, I have to wonder why you're trying to handle this yourself instead of escalating it to the people at your university who are responsible for dealing with this kind of issue. If a junior faculty member here learned of a similar situation, we would want them to contact human resources, or risk management, or general counsel, or the ombudsperson, or somebody in a position like that. They deal with this kind of thing regularly; they know better than you do how to handle it.
posted by Lexica at 10:16 AM on September 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

Do not ever try to broker a solution. Report up a nd let the chips fall where they may. This is madness and not your job and you will screw it up.
posted by fshgrl at 12:00 PM on September 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you are in any sort of position of authority, there is no such thing as 'in confidence', FYI. You represent 'the management' and now 'the management' has been informed. So this whole thing is on incredibly shaky legal ground already, should the researcher choose to take it forward. If I was you I would kick it up the chain to the people with the full authority to deal with it.
posted by StephenF at 2:59 PM on September 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree with others that this is something to hand up the chain. If you start messing with the PhD student and their possible outcomes without any record of an incident and without any official involvement from the institution then you are putting yourself at risk of a complaint which may well be upheld at some later point.

Consider talking to a more senior academic in another department (I would suggest a woman might be better) at your institution about the routes forward.

It may be worth bearing in mind that this is a case of your colleague, an employee of your institution, being harassed by someone who is a customer (and not an employee) of your institution. This will shape the onus on the university to act.
posted by biffa at 2:57 AM on September 8, 2016

I work at a UK university although no longer as an academic. Please, please do not try to resolve this yourself - this is HR territory and DIY solutions will only come and bite you back.
posted by coffee_monster at 6:30 AM on September 8, 2016

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