How bad is this situation really and what are my moral obligations?
August 7, 2018 9:42 PM   Subscribe

Right now at work (in academia) there is a #metoo kind of situation going on. Six people who work for or with my manager have quit in the last six months (all but one are women, mainly citing the manager's problematic behaviour as the reason). I'm trying to figure out just how bad it is, and what my obligations (moral/ethical) are, as someone who is only peripherally affected.

The situation has already been documented multiple times over at least a two year timespan by formal complaints to HR, to the Dean, and in exit interviews. For context, this is in Australia.

I am one of only two woman left working with him at this stage (the other's contract ends next month, so soon it will just be me), and I don't have to work that closely with him (like, I see him maybe once every three weeks). He frequently makes me uncomfortable, but he kind of walks up to the line and puts a toe over it, without any one action being something that could get him in too much trouble. (He tells sexually explicit jokes, talks about his research into pornography way too often, stands too close, comes into my office without knocking or announcing himself and just stands there behind me until I realise, and he sometimes makes inappropriate comments about one of his postdoc's physical appearance).

He has behaved slightly worse with some of the other women, particularly postdocs and students, (e.g. with one he speculated about her sex life in front of her a couple of times) but they have all left now. There are other incidents that I don't know the details of - apparently according to the union, there were student complaints about him and sexual harassment years ago, and there is a young woman who visited here a few weeks ago who has since been warning other women in the field not to be alone with him, so something maybe happened there.

I put in a formal complaint to the Dean and to HR about a month ago, as did three other people who witnessed some problematic behaviour that was more along the lines of bullying/inappropriate tone of voice, towards a woman in our group who has now resigned. (Note that this is not the first formal complaint about the situation, however, and nothing came of previous ones from our group except for one mediation session that resolved nothing). The Dean told HR he would deal with the latest complaints, but he hasn't. He said he would meet with me to discuss the broader context of this guy's problematic behaviour, which I mentioned in my formal complaint, but he has avoided my attempts to actually get him to commit to a meeting time.

I met with the union the week after I made this complaint (together with a couple of other people who have left the group but are still around on campus in other roles) . The union rep said they are not hopeful much could be done, because this guy's behaviour has been repeatedly documented and nothing has happened yet, and because they said the only stuff we actually have legal recourse about is whatever counts as "sexual harassment" and "bullying", not just general incompetence, failure to communicate, micromanaging, treating people like his personal assistant, ignoring boundaries, and bad management. However, the postdocs and others most affected by the situation say that things like the sexual jokes and comments, standing too close, etc, and the occasional stuff that might count as 'bullying' would not bother them if it was from someone who was otherwise a good manager and who didn't ignore boundaries in general. They also all say they don't feel "unsafe", just "uncomfortable". They say they are not even sure they would label the behaviour as "sexual harassment". So because of statements like this, I go back and forward in my mind about how bad the situation is. (I mean, it's bad - his postdocs and direct reports have all ended up in my office in tears about the way this guy treats them more than once, but it's not specifically about the sexual behaviour, which is what the union thinks the issue would need to be for them to act). Apparently we don't have any legal right to "good management".

The union people (who know him from other contexts), the dean, and also all the affected women agree that one component to his behaviour is that he is clearly on the spectrum, and doesn't understand neurotypical social behaviour at all. We also all agree that this isn't an excuse, and all of us know people on the spectrum who we don't feel this uncomfortable around and who are generally pleasant people to work with, so we don't think we are being discriminatory, but to be honest, this is also a complicating factor and has led more than one person outside the situation to give him the benefit of the doubt.

On the other hand, it is the case that none of the women who have left were willing to be alone in the building with him, and had a complex system of text messaging alerts about his whereabouts and whether anyone else was in their offices to make sure that this didn't happen, which signals to me that people felt more than just "uncomfortable".

Another complicating factor is that this dude gets really obvious crushes on men who work for him too, and behaves inappropriately around them as well. For various reasons they don't tend to feel as threatened/uncomfortable about it as the women do, but it does mean that to an external observer, this makes it seem like standing too close, making sexual comments, talking about porn, etc, is "just the way this guy behaves". I think people tend to expect that someone who is a sexual harasser will behave differently around women than men. (He definitely behaves differently (worse) around young attractive people of all genders than around older or less attractive people, however).

Anyway, the situation now is that basically everyone most affected has left (and either will not be replaced at all, or have been replaced by men, who, as I mentioned, don't seem to feel as uncomfortable around the guy), and I personally am not badly affected by it. To be honest, the emotional fallout of the meetings with the union, trying to get a response from the Dean, talking to HR, etc has been much worse than dealing with the behaviour in the first place. So my question is, how hard do I push to get the university to act now?

I have had an informal chat to an employment lawyer. They say the nuclear option is to go to Fair Work Australia, and that this would force the university to act. I have also heard that once you do this, you need to be prepared to find somewhere else to work, and that even though the university can't formally retaliate, they can make your life very uncomfortable. I like my job (apart from this guy), and want to keep it. Also, the behaviour towards me has been so mild really that I'm not sure I personally have much of a case. The lawyer and the union also think it is borderline as to whether anything would come of it besides the guy getting another warning or being moved sideways into another role, probably with a promotion to save face, which is apparently what happened last time he was in a senior leadership role and people complained about him.

I have suggested to the women who left that they talk to a lawyer and/or to Fair Work Australia, and have offered to act as a support person or witness if they need me.

I just don't know, if I leave it at that now (instead of pushing harder for meetings with the dean and HR), whether I am betraying the other, more vulnerable women who have had to work with this guy, and presumably also will in future? I don't want to be one of those people in a senior role (I'm tenured) who knows about #metoo situations and helps brush them under the carpet. And I kind of want to burn it all down and rage publicly until something actually happens. But I also don't want to blow something up out of proportion, and I don't want to rage publicly and have nothing happen, especially when it's not even primarily about me. I have spoken to the women who have left, and they all said that they don't believe the university will act, no matter what I do, and that because of this they don't think I should risk my own position/well-being by fighting too hard. I also feel a huge conflict of interest (and the possibility that I am just selling out my ethics) because I'm on a multi-million dollar grant application with this guy that looks like it has a relatively good chance of success, and I will almost certainly be dropped off it if he decides he doesn't want to work with me anymore (since he is the big name and I'm not), and I'm pretty sure he won't want to work with me anymore if I push this any harder. (And please only suggest that maybe I don't want to be on a multi-million dollar grant application with him if you yourself are in academia in the humanities and understand the implications of having or not having such a grant).

What are my moral obligations here? And to an outsider, does this sound like it really falls into sexual harassment territory?

(Apologies for the wall of text. As this is anonymous, I wanted to make sure I preempted any questions people might ask for more details).
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (42 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What has happened when people attempted to explain to this guy, who people say is on the spectrum, that he is crossing boundaries?
posted by amtho at 10:00 PM on August 7, 2018

Holy shit, yes, this is definitely sexual harassment territory. Ugh. This fucking guy.
posted by BeeJiddy at 10:25 PM on August 7, 2018 [15 favorites]

Opinion from someone who doesn't work in your field, HR, or really any area related to this other than being a woman:

Seems like sexual harassment. If it doesn't fit that technical definition, then I nevertheless agree that it's really bad. It's affecting the ability of people to do their work (and even be at work) and it affects the organization's ability to fulfill its mission. The burden and consequences are falling everywhere except him, as far as I can tell. Is he more valuable than these other professionals? Because that's what the organization is basically saying by retaining him. Gross. And as a result, men come in, and women miss out on visibility, opportunities, paycheck, the chance to pursue their careers. That isn't value-neutral; it repeats in so many other arenas, often in less obvious ways. The women are being so devauled in this situation relative to the man.

If he's going to stay around, it would make sense to me for him to at least work with a professional to create a plan so he can exist at work without having negative impacts. Or perhaps his duties would be shifted to take him away from interacting with people.
posted by ramenopres at 10:51 PM on August 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m in the US, so I don’t know how harassment works in your country. But in the US, this is absolutely a hostile work environment, and I would go to HR and tell them that I really hope they have spoken to him about changing his behavior, because the courts are much more forgiving to companies that have shown they have taken steps to solve the problem. Taking statements and sitting on them is not solving the problem. And they are the ones who would be sued for letting a hostile work environment persist, especially after multiple complainants.

I can’t really answer the question about your moral obligation. Either letting this guy get away with harassing people so badly they leave the job keeps you up at night or it doesn’t. Everyone has their line on what they’ll accept. Would I try to get him removed at the cost of my own job? Very probably. But situations vary and I’m not you. You’ve already done a lot, and it sucks that you have to fight so hard to get anyone there to care. I have a friend in academia here and it seems exactly the same. Rampant harassment, no consequences for anyone, only rewards. I keep telling her someone needs to get the media involved, because the only thing higher education cares about is bad press. Bad press = lower enrollment and reduced alumni gifts. Hit ‘em in the wallet.
posted by greermahoney at 11:14 PM on August 7, 2018 [23 favorites]

On the other hand, it is the case that none of the women who have left were willing to be alone in the building with him, and had a complex system of text messaging alerts about his whereabouts and whether anyone else was in their offices to make sure that this didn't happen, which signals to me that people felt more than just "uncomfortable".

...there is a young woman who visited here a few weeks ago who has since been warning other women in the field not to be alone with him, so something maybe happened there.

There is a real chance this guy is a serial rapist/serial sexual assaulter, going back years to decades resulting in his being moved laterally or through promotion etc, and the University knows and is unwilling to take action of any kind because of his big name and ability to draw million dollar grants. Women don’t put together a complex text network monitoring a man’s location, ankle bracelet style, to ensure that no one is ever alone in the building with him, because he is on the autism spectrum and stands too close and talks too much about porn. The behavior you’re describing from the women who have left goes beyond a workplace reaction to bullying, shitty management, or likely sexual harassment; this is how people behave when they are dealing with a dangerous predator.

So right now he isn’t personally dangerous to you, maybe, so far, and he hasn’t done anything to you other than mild boundary pushing behavior, so far. You might stay in that safe category, with the men he gets crushes on, or you might not. Everything you have written here says that the behavior you’re describing over the past couple of years is just the tip of the iceberg. I understand how hard it is to be a woman in academia and I don’t know if it’s your moral responsibility, where your line is, to figure out what is really going on with this guy and how to act when you do, especially in the face of a hostile administration. But I do think for your own personal safety, you should follow up with the women who left who had the system monitoring him, and possibly the young woman who came to campus specifically to warn people about him, because you are about to be the only woman directly working with him, and that changes your situation considerably. Good luck.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 11:53 PM on August 7, 2018 [60 favorites]

Difficult position for you to be in, and it's very difficult to prescribe for you where the line is. However, I think there's a larger question regarding taking action against the Dean for creating a discriminatory work environment. The abuser himself is in some ways a red herring.

I would check with your lawyer in how far there is a case against the Dean and HR for enabling the behaviour. You might safe around him, but how safe do you feel in a work setting which enables abuse even if the abuse has not been directly aimed at you? I haven't worked in Australia, but in all the other countries I've worked in (3) you could have a case against the Dean/employer for their lack of action. So I'd check and then decide.
posted by frumiousb at 12:50 AM on August 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have not worked in academia. I have been hit on by and/or had dealings with creepy colleagues.

Has anybody talked to this guy directly? Have you told him that "He tells sexually explicit jokes, talks about his research into pornography way too often, stands too close, comes into my office without knocking or announcing himself and just stands there behind me until I realise, and he sometimes makes inappropriate comments about one of his postdoc's physical appearance," and that this behaviour (along with the stuff he has done to others) is wrong and needs to stop immediately?

I am asking not because I think your telling him directly will necessarily make a difference. But it is important that someone tell him directly that his behaviour is absolutely inappropriate. It is not clear from your post if anyone has told him this. I understand that the guy should know this already but I have also worked in lots of places where all the bosses were allergic to conflict and would not be direct with their creepy reports.

I don't know what you should do. But what I would do, if I had tenure, is go grab a coffee with this guy and give him, in detail, a list of all his inappropriate behaviour. I would also explain the fallout from all of that behaviour: the terrified women, the lost productivity, the loss of talent from the University. And then I would ask him what he plans to do with the knowledge you have just shared with him.

I would listen to his response, I would see how he behaves going forward, and then, if he doesn't improve, I would raise holy hell.

I'm trying to figure out just how bad it is, and what my obligations (moral/ethical) are, as someone who is only peripherally affected.

Only you can decide what your obligations are. But you are not only peripherally affected.

... basically everyone most affected has left (and either will not be replaced at all, or have been replaced by men...

As I understand it, all the most vulnerable women have left, another woman is leaving soon, and then it will be just you and the replacement men. Is that the kind of place you want to work at? Where the solution to harassment, sexual and otherwise, is for the women to leave and be replaced by men? You are female. You have just described a work environment that is actively hostile toward women. Is that truly a peripheral issue for you?

If you cannot afford to lose your job, staying and not fighting is understandable. But do consider at least talking to this guy directly. If nothing changes, do consider standing up for yourself (because he is being creepy toward you as well) and for all the women who felt forced to leave in hopes that your efforts will make your department safe for other women to work there in the future.

Should that feel too dangerous, see if you can enlist some trustworthy men (are there any?) to join in this effort. Because this guy doesn't sound like an annoyance. He sounds like a nightmare. Not to everyone, just to, you know, some of the folks who have the toughest time in academia already, the young women.

Good luck, OP. I appreciate that this is a difficult decision to make. Perhaps you posted this in part because your heart knows the path that will feel best to you and that path is difficult and exhausting and may lead to a different job. You are not obligated to act. But consider speaking up for yourself if for no one else. Whatever you decide, best of luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:34 AM on August 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

He tells sexually explicit jokes, talks about his research into pornography way too often, stands too close, comes into my office without knocking or announcing himself and just stands there behind me until I realise, and he sometimes makes inappropriate comments about one of his postdoc's physical appearance

These things are all sexual harassment. There's no maybe there.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:43 AM on August 8, 2018 [37 favorites]

I work in Australia. This is definitely sexual harassment. Also:

he kind of walks up to the line and puts a toe over it, without any one action being something that could get him in too much trouble.

In my experience with HR (in the corporate world, not academia), you don't need one particular action to be something that could get you in trouble. The collection of smaller things paints a picture as well.

If it were me, I would not risk that grant. Maybe that makes me a bad person, I don't know, but I wouldn't do it. I *would* document every single thing this guy does and everything you've been told by your colleagues. And I would watch my back. That shit about women texting his whereabouts is scary af.
posted by sunflower16 at 1:50 AM on August 8, 2018 [9 favorites]

I don’t want to overreact, I just really keep going back to that text network and how frightening it is. There is a huge difference between “this guy is a creep and you don’t want to be alone [in a room] with him” and making sure nobody is ever alone IN THE BUILDING with him. “Don’t be alone in a room,” is bad enough, but it’s a warning about passive, opportunistic behavior. An entire faculty building, multiple offices and exits? That implies a level of predatory behavior that’s really scary, implies that the person in question is actively and strategically seeking people out and hunting them down to harm. I work in a very different field than academia but there have been a rare few men that this kind of “you are not safe alone in the building because he will find you” applied to, and in every case, it was because they had assaulted multiple women, occasionally having served jail time for it or other violent behavior. I’m not trying to say this to shame you for enabling a predator or to tell you to turn down this grant or whatever. But in my experience with academia through friends and former partners, there’s a lot of kind of glossing over serious sexual violence and general violence, serial abusers, stalkers, batterers, because of the prestige of the field, a kind of attitude that it can’t really be happening here and can’t really be that bad because academics are respectable, educated people. It sounds to me like there is a serious possibility that this guy is quite dangerous and you are being essentially gaslit by the administration and by the nature of the workplace about how dangerous he might be, and that makes me worry for you. Please take care.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 2:44 AM on August 8, 2018 [11 favorites]

This shit is so irritating. He's systematically driven every woman out by terrifying them; the university knows alllll about it and has done nothing; the union knows all about it and is bumbling around uselessly; you're all alone and, what, supposed to either quit or fear for your safety at work all of the time? Of COURSE it's sexual harassment; that he's happy to abuse both genders doesn't make him better, for God's sake, it just means more prey for him. As you don't want to lose your position--and NO, you shouldn't feel conflicted about that, GOD DAMN IT, you're not responsible for him being a criminal piece of shit or for the university electing to ignore the fact that he's a criminal piece of shit, and you're not required to sacrifice your life progress because somebody is a criminal piece of shit--as you don't want to risk your position and are not, apparently, going to get any institutional support, you need to get cagey and start working to protect yourself. Assume the very worst and prepare. Talk to a private lawyer. Journal everything, of course. See if you can sniff out potential allies among the men who have experienced his behavior; are any of them sensible enough to see what this guy is doing and support you? Here is what I wish: in these situations, I wish it were legal to hire a bodyguard to come stand outside your office for the work day and just act as a damper. It should be legal; it should be an item in the university's budget. If institutions are going to ignore the sexual harassment laws that after all are there to protect them, too, then maybe they should just pay for a bunch of bouncers.
posted by Don Pepino at 3:21 AM on August 8, 2018 [27 favorites]

Just about the grant - do you want to have your name on a major grant with him when it possibly comes out 5 years from now that he may have raped someone? People with harassment backgrounds also often have assault backgrounds.
posted by Mistress at 3:28 AM on August 8, 2018 [13 favorites]

We also all agree that this isn't an excuse, and all of us know people on the spectrum who we don't feel this uncomfortable around and who are generally pleasant people to work with, so we don't think we are being discriminatory, but to be honest, this is also a complicating factor and has led more than one person outside the situation to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Seconding the above about how he responds if his behavior is confronted directly.

Beyond that, kill this with fire. If he walks right up to the line but doesn’t pass it, he knows what the line is. Particularly if he doesn’t change his behavior if he is confronted about it, he knows what he is doing. It’s possible for people with ASD to be sexual harassers. He is clearly one of them. Treat him like any other harasser.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 4:15 AM on August 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

Presumably, you would be recruiting students and postdocs to work on this grant. Do you want to be actively soliciting people to work with this person? At best, you will be implicitly condoning his behavior toward them.
posted by pemberkins at 4:41 AM on August 8, 2018 [22 favorites]

Who on your campus is responsible for investigation? As in has it in their job description? The dean is coming across as being out of their depth, and frankly, even if this person is on the spectrum, having a disability does NOT give anyone a pass for engaging in behavior that damages others. Failing to adapt after having been trained, counseled and possibly reprimanded is also just not good. I get that he has a large grant. In the US, government-funded grants also have an office within their agency for blowing the whistle on bad behavior.

Does your lawyer have experience with employment law and addressing sexual harassment? Most who do would recognize that having a client as the last of a targeted demographic would be worth helping their client through the internal complaint process, including alerting the college legal department, if there is no identified equity/sexual harassment person/department that their connection to a major grant is in jeopardy and needs a thoughtful and timely review.

Having faculty not stay is also expensive. Having students leave and not finish their academic goals because they are subjected to an extra layer of hostility and sexual harassment is a bigger problem. Stay in touch with the people who leave. Some may be more willing to speak up, and a good lawyer will explain that if it gets to the point of subpoenas, there is documentation. The first goal is to make his behavior stop so the work gets done without the extra layer of harm. Lawyers do want their clients to have a realistic view of the external legal process, which is long, and not guaranteed, but I would at least ask the Dean for an update and ask what steps are in place to improve matters.
posted by childofTethys at 4:43 AM on August 8, 2018

Not to downplay many of the other responses, but I wonder how much experience everyone's had in higher education with these answers - it's a very different environment in some ways. I really feel for you, the sense of helplessness in the face of institutional inertia, and feeling that you are letting down other victims, future and past.

Before thinking about actions, I would think about reframing a little. You are/have been a victim of this sexual harrassment also. It doesn't have to cross a certain line of "badness" to qualify. You're not just a bystander in this respect, don't assume that role, even in your head.

You're also, putting it bluntly, a victim of the patriarchy and working within a misogynist environment, in the generally misogynist environment of universities - double whammy. You do not have to bear any blame or responsibility - at all - for enabling this guy, for 'doing nothing' or bystanding or whatever. It is not the job of victims to secure justice. Nonetheless, you have done something, several somethings actually, which is more than a lot of people. Neither is it your responsibility, nor your duty, to address this harassment - on your behalf, on anyone else's behalf - even when the university has abysmally failed in its duty.

And let's be honest here, there are very real costs should you choose to do so - you've seen it in academia, I'm sure. We've all seen it. As you've alluded to about the grant, but even beyond that. It's relatively easy to say you would take a stand on the green, when it's not your job, your career, your mortgage, your social context and especially when you don't work in academia. I'm not saying you shouldn't make that sacrifice if you want, but it's real, the stakes are high.

I also wouldn't speculate about what this guy may or may not have done to other people, that you haven't heard directly from victims about. I'm not defending him - I'm defending you. Do not beat yourself up with thoughts that you may have let a rapist go free or something. Reality is, we are all working with rapists, many of us on a daily basis, unknowingly. Likewise there are plenty of sexist shits, even harrassing ones, that are not rapists. You just don't know, and it may not be appropriate to ask other victims etc.

Do not meet him for a coffee with a laundry list of sexual harrassment behaviours. Yikes, that is a situation just ripe for escalation. He may not or may not be an assaulter but that could go wrong in so many different ways; physically, career-wise, emotionally. Who knows how he'll react or what he will do? Why should a victim of sexual harrassment have to confront their accuser about anything!? That is the university's job, and someone more senior's job.

Do (and I'm sure you are) document everything. Everything. With a witness if you can. You might never need it, but if you do, those records could save your career and more.

You mentioned HR, follow up with them. Forget about the Dean for now, fuck that guy. One of HR's core functions is to protect the organisation from being sued. They will be far more sensitive to this than the Dean; it's their jobs. Ask about follow up, timelines. Mention your worry that this hostile work environment and ongoing sexual harrassment creates a risk for the dept and the university in terms of damages, reputational and financial - especially at the moment. But also, sad to say, 3 weeks is a nanosecond in HR time. They'll take a bit longer, for sure, but if they think the Dean is not creating his own paper trail to show the uni did something when told about this, HR will prod him about it. They will be well aware of the need to line up their own ducks, and by raising this - especially with others - you've created a record, which in turn will force them to create their own record of action, however piss weak.

Finally, if any confrontation with this dipshit, with the university, with anyone is required - don't do it yourself. Get someone with a bit more privilege to do it. Get a male ally to do it, the more cachet they have the better. The stakes - and potential pitfalls - for them are way lower than you. As a guy, I've done this for colleagues in the past, knowing my privilege as a dude would insulate me from the kind of responses a woman might get (also my relationships with execs etc). Use someone with more leverage than you.

Best of luck homes, I really feel for you. Don't discount what you've already done; play the long game. Going out in a blaze of glory won't help you, any other women in this environment in the future, or stop this guy, so be smart about it. I think you're bloody tops and you've already done more than most. Chin up.
posted by smoke at 4:47 AM on August 8, 2018 [39 favorites]

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I spent 10 years in academia as a graduate student and as a postdoc. I know the costs. I also know the responsibilities that people in any position to do something have to everyone else.

The OP can, with difficulty, find an equivalent position. Few grad students have that luxury.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 5:14 AM on August 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'm an academic in Australia. This behavior is appalling- just think of how maybe talented young researchers have left the field, likely forever, because of this guy. That's his legacy. The university obviously knows he's a problem but hasn't done anything about it. I'd probably try to get the press involved- a scandal is probably the best way to get him fired. Maybe talk to a dean/department head etc to give the uni one more chance to do the right thing before taking the nuclear option. I'm just so fed up with this sort of thing that I would be willing to put my own career at risk to try to put a stop to a toxic bully. Academia is cutthroat but there are plenty of people just as prestigious/talented whatever who aren't creeps that drive juniors out of the field. Let one of them (or you!) take his place. And no way should you go on a grant with him, lest you eventually be tarnished when his behavior catches up with him. Being a co-investigator on a large grant is nice, but if you're not PI or CIA it doesn't really mean much (ask me how I know!). You're better off collaborating with people who you admire and respect, and who aren't ticking time bombs. This guy could end up bringing you down by association.
posted by emd3737 at 5:21 AM on August 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

Another option would be to issue a complaint and/or discuss the situation with the ombudsman of funding agency that his grant money comes from. I suspect they will respond more effectively than your employer has thus far. I get that not everyone is comfortable getting involved or escalating in situations like this, but from what you describe I would be very willing to take a stand.
posted by emd3737 at 5:43 AM on August 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

To be clear, I am in higher ed (faculty), and my response was informed by personal experience with folks harmed not just by harassers, but by the mentors and collaborators of those harassers who did nothing to support their students who were victims.
posted by pemberkins at 6:18 AM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

However, the postdocs and others most affected by the situation say that things like the sexual jokes and comments, standing too close, etc, and the occasional stuff that might count as 'bullying' would not bother them if it was from someone who was otherwise a good manager and who didn't ignore boundaries in general.

I think one moral obligation is not to be ok -- in the work place -- with sexual jokes and close physical contact with people you like if you're not going to be ok with them from people you don't like.

For one thing, quite apart from the issue with the guy in your question, you don't really know who else might be uncomfortable with sexual jokes, and if there are one or two lone people who are uncomfortable with them coming from "the good guy" those people will not feel comfortable complaining when others say it doesn't bother them.
posted by frobozz at 6:42 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm on a multi-million dollar grant application with this guy that looks like it has a relatively good chance of success

I think the Dean, and possibly others, are downplaying this awful situation because they too want this grant application to succeed. Moreover, they are possibly depending on you to manage the situation once the grant activities begin because you've exhibited valuable qualities: you help and comfort his other victims while not being all that personally affected and being a woman.

Your post didn't mention the grant award/activity timeline, but if it's reasonably soon, it might also be your best chance to make an impact without harming your own career given the terrible lack of response to all the complaints by you and others about this guy. Whether that takes the form of reporting his actions through official government, union or university channels, planting stories in the school newspaper or other media, enlisting male colleagues to coach him, or mounting some kind of grant group-wide protest that provides safety in numbers can be determined based on grant-specific dynamics. Good luck, OP you've been fighting the good fight, and hard.
posted by carmicha at 6:49 AM on August 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

enlisting male colleagues to coach him

or enlisting male colleagues to lay down the law in the most terrifying (but not illegal) manner imaginable. more productively, enlist male colleagues to shun him absolutely and decline all collaboration and contact with him. if they have not done so already they may be a lost cause; on the other hand, any of them not absolutely dead to shame should be eager to make up for their inaction in any way possible. anyone -- anyone not already his victim or a woman in a precarious position -- who will not do this basic thing is complicit.

"coaching" is not just a bit nauseating in its helpful buddy good-natured connotations, it's the wrong direction and might make things much worse. he's already much too good at the game he's playing. he is an opponent, not an inept teammate.

furthermore you could argue, and in fact I am arguing, that his social skills are better and more finely developed than anyone else's in this whole story. He is the winner. he is the king of social maneuvering and human manipulation. he does everything he wants and speaks in any way he likes with no consequences. what could a coach teach him? he's the expert.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:24 AM on August 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

So, I'm in the US, not Australia, so I'm not sure how well my knowledge of US academic power structures will translate to your situation, but from what you've written, you've got a Dean who is badly out of their depth, and a basically-useless Union. It's time to kick this up several levels, and when you've done that, the weight of the administration is going to drop on this harasser's head like a ton of very unhappy bricks.

In a US university, the person you're looking for, depending on University titles, is the Provost's office (likely the Assistant or Associate Provost who deals with faculty). If there isn't a Provost, you're looking for the Vice President for Faculty (or maybe the VP for Research). Basically, you're looking for whoever the person is in the top-level command structure with direct approval and oversight on faculty. It won't be the President/Chancellor, it'll be someone two notches down (if it's a really small university, you might just have a Provost/VP without subordinates, but that's really rare). Get in contact with them, and to Hell with your useless Dean and Union. Drop the hammer.

It's probably also worth contacting the funding agencies in question. I'm only familiar with the US versions (in my area, that's the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation), but they'd take an awe-inspiringly dim view of this kind of shit. I'd drop an complaint to the correct office (in the US, this would be the agency's Office for Diversity and Inclusion) and they'll start a process in train. Both of those agencies in the US have made it very clear that they'll yank funding in these circumstances.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:24 AM on August 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

I used to be a union steward. One of the cases I handled was quite similar to this - and it was in academia, also. Management protects itself/the higher ups at the expense of their underlings, which is why the usual outcome is the bad offenders continue to be protected and the victims/whistleblowers are transferred at best, fired at worst.

Expecting HR to actually do something is most often wishful thinking, because HR only has what limited power upper management allows it to have. Meaning, when upper management decides it'll do what it wants and defies HR, HR can do nothing - and that happens a lot.

Anyhow, I found myself in the similarly frustrating situation. Remember, a union is not the employer, so the union's ability to deal with this issues is greatly constrained. If there's nothing in the contract or labor law that would permit a grievance or lawsuit to be filed, there's not much more the union can do. In the worst cases, HR and the steward quietly, off the record gripe to each other that they can't do anything.

And yet. There still is something the union can do, which is give the offender a bit of his own back. In the case I handled, I wrote a letter to the offender. I copied it to his supervisor, his department head, and HR. In the letter, I told him the union was aware of what he was doing, and outlined his transgressions. I also told him we were getting reports, we were compiling them, and I was putting him on formal notice: We Are Watching YOU.

Harassers really don't like feeling harassed in turn. And he went positively ballistic. He was especially furious that his boss, his boss's boss, and HR were copied on the letter.

Off the record, HR was delighted.

What happened next: the harasser stopped harassing all and sundry and began cultivating allies from some of his former victims, some of whom then drank the kool-aid and began blaming the union for making a mountain out of a molehill. We didn't give two craps about that, as long as he stopped harassing. Which he did.

Public shaming. It very often succeeds.
posted by Lunaloon at 7:30 AM on August 8, 2018 [32 favorites]

You have the protection of tenure. Your vulnerable students and postdocs and colleagues do not. This is not a safe or healthy work environment for anyone. You are not blowing this out of proportion. It is worth making a fuss. It is worth taking another step. Please protect your students and postdocs and colleagues. If you don't, you really will be one of those senior professors who brushes things under the carpet.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:51 AM on August 8, 2018 [9 favorites]

The union rep said they are not hopeful much could be done,

Then they are a shitty fucking union rep. The point of having a union is to take collective action in response to workplace shittiness. I would get some other people together and go to the union rep en masse, and tell them they need to do something about this or you will form another union in the workplace that will.
posted by corb at 8:26 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

While brushing my teeth I thought about making your office quietly unfriendly to him. Keep this thread open on your desktop at all times for those moments when he looms up behind your shoulder. Every time a magazine shows up on the newstand with a big splashy "Me Too" cover, buy it. Throw these around the office where he'll see them when he comes creeping in.

While flossing, I considered the nannycam. Maybe it'd be a bit baroque to hire a bodyguard, but why not film his insane "sneak-up-behind-you" behavior? Hide itty bitty cameras in potted plants all over your office. Aim them at his favorite stalk-spots and run them 24/7. Maybe you'll never use the footage or tell anyone about it, but you'll have it.

While driving to work I thought about what a lot of people have said already: sabotaging the grant funding by letting the funders know what's up--anonymously or not, whatever. The Institution--broadly, all of them, The Human Institution--needs to learn that the way to acquire a cash cow or keep one going is to go after any and all Kevin Spacey "superstars" who think they're too big to fail and who victimize other people who are working in good faith for The Institution to get it more money. The collective insanity must end.

While trying to park in the shithole lot I thought, "Most of all she must just keep talking." Talk to his former victims, talk to his current victims, talk to the goddamn useless dean, talk to the union, talk to the press, talk talk talk talk talk. Some of this talk is bound to get back to him. HE is the vulnerable one, here, or if he isn't, he can be made to be--just like Kevin and Harvey and Al and Garrison and fucking LOUIE and blah blah fucking world without end blah (sorry for the USAbias, here--fill in the Aussie examples as appropriate). These predatory pukes thought nobody who would do anything to them was noticing. Because they were such phenoms. And they were right. For years, for decades. Well, they stopped being right. Suddenly. They were right, they were right, they were right, and then WHAM, they were very wrong. And we have not heard from them since. And this must happen everywhere and for always.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:31 AM on August 8, 2018 [7 favorites]

I just want to say that I agree with the academic poster above who says you are also a victim and you are not obligated to seek justice. That is completely true. You are not obligated to do that. And clearly, there are very real risks for you if you do continue to speak out. I hope you can get the union to act and send a letter, as suggested above. Fuck this guy, fuck this university, fuck the union, and fuck the patriarchy. More than anything, I am sorry that you are in this situation and especially sorry for all the women this asshole has chased away. It is totally not fair for you to lose the opportunity to work on the project that is about to be funded because it is attached to a sexual harasser and total asshole.
posted by Bella Donna at 9:06 AM on August 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Presumably, you would be recruiting students and postdocs to work on this grant. Do you want to be actively soliciting people to work with this person? At best, you will be implicitly condoning his behavior toward them.

Yes, this very seriously. Either you'll be recruiting more female victims for this disgusting creep, or you'll end up named in a gender discrimination lawsuit for not recruiting any female candidates.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:36 AM on August 8, 2018 [10 favorites]

I have spoken to the women who have left, and they all said that they don't believe the university will act, no matter what I do, and that because of this they don't think I should risk my own position/well-being by fighting too hard.

Encourage these women to go to the campus and local newspapers. Disinfecting sunlight, and all that, will put off prospective grantors, donors, and attendees. Expose him, strip the varnish from his rep, and the university will dump him to protect funding.
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:27 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Just to clarify- exhaust your on-campus options first before breathing anything to the grant-funding body. Especially if it is not yet awarded. Your problem PI is replaceable. It’s what happens when any PI gets swallowed whole by a shark. Think about leadership and having a succession plan. Insist on technical transparency.

Remind your campus administrators that you have off-campus options if the due diligence of an investigation does not occur. They can hire a neutral third party to get the job done. Going to the grant agency is a last resort. Funding a hot mess can dry things up in a hurry. Your administration should be aware of that. It may be that the administration is waiting to hear about funding before lowering a boom, but you should have a timeline and updates on progress.
posted by childofTethys at 10:35 AM on August 8, 2018

You stuck your neck out by making a formal complaint. In any situation like this, I would document it by emailing notes to yourself - that creates a timestamp and you want a copy in non-work storage. You have provided support to others who have filed claims. Pursuing a harassment claim in academia is exhausting and if you choose not to act further, that's fine. Dealing with a harasser's behavior to others is a form of seeking justice, but is also emotional labor. This is your University's job, and they choose not to do it.

One thing you can do is contact women who have been harassed, ask them to keep loosely in touch, get permanent email addresses for them. And encourage them to file your country's version of a class action suit. Multiple women have been forced out of their work and study by a creep and it's horrible. Part of what would make any legal action successful is the testimony of multiple victims, and finding them is the big problem. I would also get pissy with the union - they are not doing their job, and if if a guy in 1 dept. is getting away with it, guys in many departments are getting away with similar activity.

If you recruit students, set it up so they do not have to be alone with him and have limited contact. If his behavior stops you from doing your work and/or affects your studies, I recommend raising hell harder.

I believe you have met your ethical obligation and the University has not.
posted by theora55 at 10:50 AM on August 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

In the US, to be considered harassment, the behavior must be unwanted, unwelcomed and uninvited; persistent, behavior that demeans, threatens, intimidates, or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim. The legal definition varies by state. IANAL The behavior you describe meets the legal standard in my state.

I filed a formal complaint and then sued my employer for discrimination. HR helped them make my life hell, so I filed a complaint at the state level, and it was technically successful, but took a chunk out of me.

If he is on the autism spectrum, that is a University issue; it does not give him license to harass women.

Thanks for standing up for women and employees. I think you can keep an eye on the situation, and find a time to note to the Dean that the behavior is harming the department's reputation, that women are unable to stay in the dept., and that it is likely to get worse and cause public problems for the Uni, because it will.
posted by Mom at 10:58 AM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Given the backing for your manager shown by the Dean's evasiveness with you, I'd say you don't have enough on him to bring him down at this time.

And if you did make a push and he survived, you probably wouldn't, and he would essentially be immunized against consequences for anything he's done to this point at least until he does something truly flagrant -- which might happen at any time, to be sure.

However, I think it would be worthwhile to document everything he's done as best you can, and to encourage the women you know he's driven out to ask around in their circles in order to uncover other examples of his misbehavior and document those as well. Then if he does do something which merely weakens his position, you'll be ready to move against him while he's still vulnerable.

As far as the grant goes, some big grants require leadership succession plans, and if you can (surreptitiously) find out if yours does and what they are, when push comes to shove, you might be able to reassure people like your colleagues and the Dean that their jobs and the money can go on without your manager, and that would grease the skids and save all the work you've put into the grant too.
posted by jamjam at 12:05 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

As a fellow female academic I completely sympathize with your predicament (and do worry about the postdocs and grad students who are being recruited to be harassed by him--that could, indeed, get you in hot water, not to mention ruin your karma). As a person worried for your safety, I urge you to rearrange your office so your desk doesn't face backwards. If your desk is stationery, buy a new desk.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 12:50 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am not in academia or in Australia, but just some local anectdata from the USA:

the University of Southern California has been in buckets of hot water recently over an adminstration that has looked the other way when students' well-being have been compromised. The worst incident is keeping a gynecologist employed for decades despite the many complaints over inappropriate behavior. Months after this came to public light, the presiding University president has only finally just stepped down over this, but only after a campus-wide revolt from faculty members.

This is to say, getting change is not easy and not a one-person effort, but it needs to happen and the consequences will be far-reaching when they do. From a purely selfish perspective, in addition to all the more than excellent ones already provided, something like has the potential to taint your career by association for years to come.

Links for reference:
LA Times
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 2:23 PM on August 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Apologies if my intended message came through garbled in that last paragraph, was typing on my mobile phone during lunch and didn't do a proper editing job.

Stuff like this happens, happens far too often and for far too long with too few consequences for the abusers and condoning administration relative to those directly effected by the abusers. It's shocking to think of all the patients who were preyed upon over the years, and this is the stuff that comes to public light.

I hope you find other allies and band together in your positions of relative power to prevent this type of predatory behavior from continuing, because the consequences are real.
posted by Goblin Barbarian at 2:48 PM on August 8, 2018

"I have spoken to the women who have left, and they all said that they don't believe the university will act, no matter what I do, and that because of this they don't think I should risk my own position/well-being by fighting too hard."

I think morally you HAVE been doing things, they just won't work because nobody is interested in doing a damn thing. And the odds are very good that you ruin your career and ability to get another job if you go after this guy, and the odds are very low that anything at all will happen to him if you do. Is he worth losing your career and ability to get another job over? (Also, this is a good point about your grant.)

I don't care if he's autistic or not, it seems like way too many people use that as an excuse and autistic does not equal harasser or vice versa.

I do think that if you're the one woman left in the office, he'll really escalate towards you, prepared for that. Unless you don't make his boner so much as twitch, you're not safe there just because you haven't gotten as much harassment as everyone else.

Honestly, these days large numbers of women and public shaming are what is working to get them. If you can get everyone who's already left to go to the media and publicly embarrass this place for keeping him--THEN you might get somewhere.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:00 PM on August 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Every time we read about another case of harassment in the news, there had to be at least one brave woman to stand up and point it out. After that, there had to be others willing to support her.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:36 PM on August 8, 2018

Just because he's on the spectrum does not give him a free pass, any more than he should get a free pass because he is white or because he is male. I am on the spectrum. I raised three kids who are on the spectrum. Being on the spectrum does not excuse social behaviour that harms other people.

If he stimmed - say rocking back and forth from toes to heels around other people, it would be something to leave alone. If he required downtime to de-stim and made himself unavailable at certain periods it would be something to leave alone. If he required the fans off in order to listen it would be something to work with him on. If he kept eagerly going off talking about his favourite subject, it would be time to agree on signals to stop him when he got off topic and went on too long. He doesn't get to lecture everyone about Mesopotamia if he is the head of the Computer Engineering department.

However, I don't think you should be the one to lose your job over him, if you don't want to. But I do think that your route of networking with other women - and men is the way to go.

Be aware, of course that he could be raping or physically assaulting men just as much as women, and that you should be checking with the guys too. If he has sexually assaulted another guy, that guy is highly unlikely to admit it to anyone let alone report it to the higher ups, possibly even more so than women. Instead they will try to play it cool and high status and try desperately to pretend it never happened and to forget it. So be aware that you are also protecting the men and may be able to find male allies, despite the enabling and encouraging being down by management.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:57 AM on August 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is sexual harassment.

Scattered thoughts:
You may want to read some of Sara Ahmed's posts about resigning from Goldsmith's over similar situations (which are ALL OVER academia), and she would be the first to acknowledge that it takes privilege to be able to resign, and do so in a way that has repercussions.

If this is your field, you might speak to metooanthro.

My sense of the conversation so far is that moral obligations come with power. If you cannot reasonably take efficacious action (which so many of us in the position of being abused do), then there is no sense in asking why you did not act. Your personal moral yardstick is a separate matter between you and yourself.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 8:37 PM on August 9, 2018

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