Clarence Thomas good judgement filter:
April 5, 2006 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Should I report my colleague's sexual harassment? I am a male faculty member at a unionized academic institution. A male colleague frequently uses sexual innuendo during department meetings. (Examples: After being assigned a task: "I like to get used" to the more offensive: "I was orgasmic!") But now he's taken to making some comments to others one-on-one.

For example, a female coworker was plugging in her computer and he said to her, "I love to see you on your knees." Now the coworker says that because she's lived in big cities that she can "handle him." I want to report his behavior, but my close female colleagues don't want to go along with me. Excuses range from "he's of a certain generation" to pity for him to the fact that because he wields some authority that he'll go for revenge on me. Should I respect their concerns and do nothing or should I go with my conscience which tells me every thing about his behavior is wrong?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
By remaining silent, he is experiencing you as complicit in his inappropriate behavior. Perhaps you could speak with him personally prior to a formal complaint? Overal I'd say that he is creating a hostile work environment for everyone, not just those he is harassing. IANAAttorney, however.
posted by miss tea at 1:41 PM on April 5, 2006

Why don't you talk to him first?

There's something that makes me uncomfortable about a guy white-knighting into this situation, but then I have issues with sexual harassment laws often legally infantalizing women. On the other hand, having back-up from the men in the office can be a good thing -- but it doesn't sound like the women really think it's that big a deal.

He's not actually harassing you, and the people you assume are being harassed don't seem to mind all that much. Again, I would think it's worth saying your piece to the guy, but I question why you want to bring this to your superiors.
posted by occhiblu at 1:43 PM on April 5, 2006

Does this coworker have contact with students/clients/people outside the institution? Particularly younger people (< 21 years)? He could be putting your institution at risk for a huge sexual harassment lawsuit, controversy, etc, if his attitude is bleeding out onto them. Maybe the company won't do anything about it, but I think they should at least be aware of how one of their workers is acting.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:47 PM on April 5, 2006 [1 favorite]

Your co-workers are definitely enabling the behavior. If the behavior is prohibited by your workplace policy, it shouldn't matter who can 'handle it' or not. It's out of bounds.

However, if what you heard was second-hand -- that is, the co-workers related the stories to you, and you weren't a witness-- you don't have much to go on.

In your position, what I think I would do is simply keep a written log of the comments or behaviors you've heard about or found objectionable, and keep it somewhere secure. When and if the problem escalates, you'll have some assembled evidence and a history.

It sounds as though his behavior is pretty out of touch with your work culture. I know these sorts of issues are considered more serious in academia, as well. If there's any way to handle it tactfully, you might think about taking him aside, 'as a friend', and just saying that, while you think he's probably joking, some people are talking about his comments and you wouldn't want anyone to accuse him of harrassment. That might be enough for him to curtail the behavior. If not, then keep the log.
posted by Miko at 1:47 PM on April 5, 2006

If what he's saying is offending you--and it sounds like it is--than you not only have the right to call him out on it, you have the obligation. Allowing him to continue implicitly condones his behavior.

He's not actually harassing you, and the people you assume are being harassed don't seem to mind all that much. Again, I would think it's worth saying your piece to the guy, but I question why you want to bring this to your superiors.

I don't advocate bringing in a lawyer immediately--talk to him one-on-one first; or send an anonymous e-mail--but you don't have to be the direct recipient of derogatory jokes or comments to be a plaintiff in a sexual harrassment case. This sounds like "third-party" sexual harrassment, where you yourself aren't the target, but the general nature of his comments and behavior (and, by extension, the workplace) makes you uncomfortable.
posted by maxreax at 1:48 PM on April 5, 2006

Report it immediately. What he is doing is wrong and illegal and you have a duty to report it. You are not going to bring in an attorney at all. He is engaging in employee misconduct.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:51 PM on April 5, 2006

"Heh heh, I used to love that joke, it was hillarious, when I was 16"

I'm trying to imagine this guy, and all I can think of is the "Marvin Hicfa" (sp?) charater from Mad TV.
posted by Good Brain at 1:51 PM on April 5, 2006

I agree with keeping things unofficial first. Just tell the guy that what he's doing isn't right. Either by anonymous email, or face to face depending upon the nature of your work environment and relationship with the guy in question. If everyone else likes the guy, just be careful that your employer isn't forced into making a choice, you or him.
posted by maxpower at 1:52 PM on April 5, 2006

I'd say it depends on your work relationship. If you know him well and think he'd listen to you, then talk to him personally. Otherwise, present a case to a manager or HR person either anonymously or privately to the right official. If you ask him then later have to go to an official, he's going to know exactly who did it.
posted by mikeh at 2:02 PM on April 5, 2006

In your position, what I think I would do is simply keep a written log of the comments or behaviors you've heard about or found objectionable, and keep it somewhere secure. When and if the problem escalates, you'll have some assembled evidence and a history.

Report it immediately. What he is doing is wrong and illegal and you have a duty to report it

Not necessarily illegal at this level (I don't know where this is taking place mind you) I don't think.

Remember sexual harassment by definition (at least in placed I've worked and resources available to me and common sense imho) consists of behaviour that is known to be unwanted or ought to have been reasonably known. If no one has mentioned to him these types of comments make them uncomfortable then the only debate is whether one should reasonably know that this behaviour is unwanted. Many would argue yes of course, but in many cases a little light flirting/banter could progress slowly to somewhat graphic discussion without crossing a legal line if the powers that be could be convinced it was a mutual or accepted thing.

This is why I'm not sure documenting these comments in the future would serve you in anyway. It doesn't address the issue that no one has complained. Generally the way to go about such a thing would be to mention (only needs to be once) what makes you uncomfortable and keep a record of what is said after he has been put on notice so to speak.
posted by skinnydipp at 2:51 PM on April 5, 2006

The examples you cite don't seem that egregious. I would keep a written log of any questionable comments he makes, maybe mention to him when he makes the comments that you don't find them funny, or perhaps talk to him personally, but don't bring this to superiors yet. Unless the people he harrassed are willing to testify against him, I can't see anything coming of it, and he will most definitely hold it against you.
posted by lemur at 2:51 PM on April 5, 2006

Call him on it in person, but not in defense of the women...he's being a jerk and it's offending you.

(I'm one of those women who likes to fight my own battles in my own way as well.)
posted by desuetude at 3:08 PM on April 5, 2006

the first two examples wouldn't bother me, but I'd raise my eyebrows at the third, and generally try to make clear by casual body language that that's "not cool". If the guy really didn't seem to pick up on the signals, then I'd probably drop a few comments to clarify, really, dude, don't go there. If he still was unable to modify his behavior to act appropriately in the workplace, I'd specifically "have a talk" or send an email, depending on my relationship with him. If he remained unconvinced at that stage, then I would report it to a higher-up.

re: whose battle it is, I would try to focus the issue around your own experience, so you're not doing it out of obligation to someone else, but because his behavior makes the workplace uncomfortable in general.
posted by mdn at 3:34 PM on April 5, 2006

You should report him on your own behalf, because you are not comfortable in the workplace environment he's creating - or else don't report him. That's your decision and we can't make it for you.

In my experience in "unionized academic" environments, there are nearly always offices dedicated to processing these kinds of complaints.

You should be aware that the primary function of these offices is to protect the university from liability in lawsuits. The rationale used for this is that if the steps are taken to see that the university is protected from liability from lawsuits, other good things (such as an appropriate workplace environment that does not violate Federal law) will necessarily follow.

However, these offices do not put your privacy, anonymity and job security as their first priority. They may state - as they are required to - that they will make "every effort" to ensure that you do not suffer retaliation from this, but in my experience they cannot ensure your safety from retaliation, nor are they even required to try.

Academic politics is pretty cutthroat. Before you go for the kill, why not try discussing the issue with the guy in private? If you're not comfortable presenting your concerns to him as your own, you might mention that you overheard "some of the girls" discussing it. If you don't get his attention, then you could proceed to your sexual harassment office.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:10 PM on April 5, 2006

Document--just because you never know what is going to happen when this hits the fan. And it will. It sounds like his behavior is escalating, someone is going to call him on it. When they do, things are going to get very heavy very fast. Since he is senior, the union will likely take his side.

Before it gets to that, you really should talk to him. What does "wields some authority" mean? I take it he is not your chairman, or you would have said. In any case, suck it up and talk to him. Tell him that you--not the women, you--find his behavior offensive and that you are asking him to stop. He may try to make a joke of it. You respond, I am serious and I do not find this funny. Please stop.

And if he doesn't? I would not take it any farther unless one of his targets make a complaint. Just document and bide your time.
posted by LarryC at 5:12 PM on April 5, 2006

It annoys me that women tolerate this. I've experienced something similar, but it was in a much less formal restaurant/bar situation and not one woman stood up for me (female, then 19 years old) when I reported my manager for making rude, sexist comments, even though they'd spent months bitching about him.

Anyway, I think you should report him if only because the more decent men ignore this shit, the more asshole men will feel like it's acceptable. I don't think it has anything to do with women not being able to fight their own battles - fact is, there's only so much women can do about sexism and if there are some guys out there willing to call out other men on their sexism (because they actually think it's wrong, not because they're trying to be all white-knight about it), fine by me.
posted by speranza at 5:19 PM on April 5, 2006

If you've got to do anything, man-up and talk to the guy face-to-face. Don't whine about being offended, just tell him to knock it off.

But: "I like to get used" just doesn't strike me as all that offensive, and "I was orgasmic" is clearly a sentence fragment taken out of context, so doesn't mean anything to me. If this is the worst the guy has done, maybe the problem is in your mind and the women in the office genuinely aren't bothered because it's so completely insignificant.
posted by The Monkey at 5:34 PM on April 5, 2006

Maybe 'uncomfortable' or 'embarrassed' is easier than 'offended,' if you decide to talk about your own reaction to the bawdy talk. "Creating an uncomfortable work envirionment" is the definition of harrassment at some companies.

If someone were insulting you alone, the proper response would be eye contact and silence. If a few people join you in that reaction, this guy will probably feel pretty unconfortable himself.
posted by wryly at 6:18 PM on April 5, 2006

Could be a physiological condition - is it getting worse with time?

Or maybe he's getting his jollies from waging a one-man battle against the forces of Political Correctness. In this case, lectures about sexism and workplace appropriateness probably won't cut it. What might work is this: Dirty Old Men don't like to see themselves as such. In his mind he's suave and a little risqué, and ultimately quite attractive to the ladies. An indication that his behaviour comes off as more than a little creepy might be jarring enough to get him thinking about it; surely he doesn't want to be seen as a shriveled, wheezy old perv. When he says something like he's orgasmic or likes being used, remarking in a semi-humourous manner that it'll take a great deal of time and effort to erase that image from your brain might get his attention. Or, in the "I like to see you on your knees" case, an "Uh, Charles? Eeew." (as if he's just cut a loud wet stinky one) might be the ticket. Doesn't have to be a showy face-losing callout in front of the whole faculty, but something to put it into his mind that he's starting to skeeve people out.
posted by hangashore at 6:27 PM on April 5, 2006

My first question is, "Do you have tenure?" If not, things could get dicey in the long run. It's just something to bear in mind. I applaud, though, your interest in stopping this guy's inappropriate behavior.

I would have to disagree with other folks about talking to him about the problem. He may very well get angry. I'm not convinced that there's much of an upside to talking to him.

I am assuming that the college has a written sexual harrassment policy. My suggestion would be to xerox it, write something like "Please carefully review" in red ink on it and anonymously toss it in his faculty mailbox.

Then if things continue, consider the options that others have suggested. My choice would be to go to either the department chair or the specific office charged with dealing with sexual harassment matters. If this guy is creating an "uncomfortable work environment," he's in the wrong. That's what we were told recently in sexual harassment training at work.

Good luck.
posted by bim at 9:14 PM on April 5, 2006

First of all, your coworkers are adults, and can decide what does and does not offend them. If they insist to you they are not offended or that it isn't a big deal, they are probably telling the truth. Relative to the examples you've provided, I've heard and seen a lot worse in a work environment (albeit usually between males,) and nobody was offended. Everyone is different.

Secondly, your coworkers are adults and can act on their own behalf. Coming to someone else's defense when they don't need/want your help and dragging them into a situation they never wanted will likely make you two enemies, while accomplishing largely nothing, since the defendee will probably do whatever they can to downplay and distance themselves from the drama you've created for them.

If someone actually is upset by his behavior, It would probably be more helpful to encourage them to feel enabled to respond, and offer them whatever help and support they need (including joining with them in action if they want you to do so,) but they should have initiative.

Finally, you are all adults. There is nothing wrong with joking, even mildly 'inappropriately', if nobody is harmed by it. If his jokes actually do harm your work or your psyche, and you don't tell him you're offended, he won't know. Going over his head and trying to get him in trouble without even telling him first is not adult behavior, and borders on vindictive. So either let it go, or be an adult and talk to him.
posted by blenderfish at 12:17 AM on April 6, 2006

"there's only so much women can do about sexism and if there are some guys out there willing to call out other men on their sexism"

So, speranza, what you're saying is that if only men would deign to help the poor, defensless women, then poor, defensless women might have a chance to be treated as equals?

Are you trying to take feminism down from the inside, or something?
posted by blenderfish at 12:29 AM on April 6, 2006

blenderfish, I'm not sure how the hell you read my post, but I am hugely insulted. I am absolutely a feminist, and probably more actively so than you.

Nowhere did I say that women were defenceless ("I don't think it has anything to do with women not being able to fight their own battles"), nor that they need to be rescued by men ("not because they're trying to be all white-knight about it"), but sexism is something that ultimately men have to stop engaging in.

All the feminist activism in the world will not entirely stop sexism until men decide to stop it and to stop tolerating it among each other. Same with rape. Same with racism. Same with homophobia. You can't force people to stop being assholes, but the people who would be considered their "allies" can certainly go a long way in stopping the effect of their behaviour by making it known that it is not tolerated.
posted by speranza at 1:47 AM on April 6, 2006

speranza, I am not an active feminist, though I'm actually pretty unsure of what exactly an active feminist does (go to marches?) I do, however, strive to be as equitable as I can.

I agree, in a general context, that people should share positive values with each other whoever and wherever they are, and that one such positive value is the elimination of sexism (and other isms.)

However, this is not a general context, since the first part of what I quoted above began with "I think you should report him..."

In this particular case, the Poster and the woman have equal recourse-- ostensibly, neither is debilitated or defenseless, and both are fully aware of the situation. Acting on her behalf (just as she could), in spite or lieu of her wishes, merely out of some sort of chivalric or moral sense, is very condescending, and I would even dare say, sexist.

By doing so, even if you're not trying to be a white-knight, you still are. Even if you think women are able to fight their own battles, your actions would diametrically disagree.
posted by blenderfish at 3:14 AM on April 6, 2006

Suppose you and your colleagues are all "white." Yet one colleague is always making comments of a somewhat racist nature. Is it OK to let it pass since you aren't personally affected? What about comments about fags, queers and the like. Is that OK too? Are the retarded fair game? Should white folks have stayed home and not marched with black folks in Selma? Should straight folks just sit on their hands when they see homophobia? Can you see where this is heading?

We are all responsible for maintaining an appropriate workplace...and creating a world that treats everyone "appropriately." Some might argue that it was the "diffusion of responsibility" that got Kitty Genovese killed.

If the offender says things as mentioned above to co-workers, what's he saying to the female students? I wouldn't want my daughter to have to listen to sexist comments at school. I wouldn't want my wife to have to deal with some outdated old fossil making sexist statements at her workplace.

I think the poster deserves a lot of credit for not just sitting on his hands and saying, oh well, it's not my problem.

And statements like this are part of the problem:

I've heard and seen a lot worse in a work environment (albeit usually between males,) and nobody was offended.
posted by bim at 6:22 AM on April 6, 2006

By doing so, even if you're not trying to be a white-knight, you still are. Even if you think women are able to fight their own battles, your actions would diametrically disagree.

what? are you saying men can't be feminists?
posted by mdn at 6:32 AM on April 6, 2006

You are the victim of what is known as '3rd Party Sexual Harrasment', which ranges anywhere from being uncomfortable witnessing a harrasing exchange, to knowing about and being uncomfortable with two parties actually having sex in exchange for company benefits (promotions/raises/perks).

It doesn't really matter if you are the 3rd party. It's still illegal, probably on a federal level.

Your first action should be talking to the offender and let him know that you are not okay with it. Most likely, he'll laugh it off, say okay whatever, and not do it when he notices you around. For a while anyway. Once it happens again, go to your HR department or your superior.

The great thing is, your job is required to do something about it. If they don't, you can take them to court, and get alot of money. Enough that you can retire if you like. They'll most likely resolve it long before it gets to that point, with mediation and other such things.

You could also talk to your union rep, and they'll let you know a good course of action. If the offender is in the union, they may offer to talk to him for you, and resolve it without anyone knowing you were involved.

There's no white-knight issue here, you are protecting yourself, not some other people. You are a victim too, and are certainly well within your rights to take immediate action. You are in a workplace, not a highschool classroom, and as such you don't have to put up with immature idiots that feel the need to bring sex into the workplace.

Stop reading, and go solve the problem now.
posted by Phynix at 12:44 PM on April 6, 2006

Academic departments have a very strong culture of circling the wagons whenever one of their own is attacked. If anonymous reports the sexual harassment to an office outside the department, and anyone in the department finds out he did it, everyone will be furious with him for causing problems. This is a highly shitty aspect of academic culture, in my opinion, but currently that's how it is.

bim has it right: the most important thing to think about in all of this is who is tenured and who isn't. anonymous refers to his colleague as being "of a certain age," which suggests the offensive colleague (let's call him Dr. H) may have tenure. If the other colleagues discussed in this post don't have tenure, they are also vulnerable. It is common for assistant professors seen as "uncollegial" to be denied tenure.

Anonymous, do you have tenure? If so, you can do whatever you want. I would encourage you to confront Dr. H about how his comments bother you, as other posters have advised.

If you don't have tenure, then be careful. In my opinion you will have more power to deal with shit like this once you have tenure, and you shouldn't blow your tenure prospects over this issue. Instead, go with an anonymous response - a note left in his mailbox, or a copy of the sexual harassment policy as bm suggested.
posted by medusa at 8:22 PM on April 6, 2006

mdn:"are you saying men can't be feminists?"
Treating a grown woman like a child and interceding when she genuinely doesn't want you to is not being a feminist. (If he's doing it for himself, on his own behalf, that's different.)

While it is commendable that he cares, the fact that the O.P. even asked "Should I respect their concerns" casts doubts in my mind about whether he is the one being sexist. Women don't need you to hold their parasol and cover their ears so they don't hear nary a dirty word. They really, truly can make their own decisions about what is acceptible. If they actually want you to help, only then should you help.

bim:"Should white folks have stayed home and not marched with black folks in Selma?"
No, bim, but those white people were invited to come along. Didn't see too many white people in the Black Panthers, did you?

bim:"And statements like this are part of the problem"
Perhaps "i've heard worse" was a bad statement to make, so I will be more concrete. I don't know the context, obviously, but "I like being used" doesn't register to me as even remotely offensive. "Orgasmic," is slightly naughty, but, again, you're all adults. Adults are allowed to use such words. The knee thing-- yeah, that's probably a bit out of line, but despite what my esteemed legal counsel Phynix has to say, I doubt mild flirting at a workplace is a federal offense, at least not until she lets him know she has a problem with it. I don't see any of those statements as sexually discriminatory-- they are all pretty much gender neutral. None of them are explicit. They are all something you'd see in about 5 minutes of watching Fox. From the post, I don't see harassing, hostile or threatening behavior, I dont see quid pro quo.

I understand that in some situations, workplace descrimination can get bad, but put your pitchforks away.
Just talk to this guy like a grown adult. Drop some hints. Obviously, the O.P. is a bit vexed, and probably should try resolve the issue, but nobody is a "victim" here. And, nobody is going to get raped or murdered--sheesh.

I dig Phynix's retirement plan, though, ("you can take them to court, and get alot of money. Enough that you can retire if you like") That's the American Dream, baby!
posted by blenderfish at 10:22 PM on April 6, 2006

Funny. The comments described from the offensive person all sound rather gay to me. The behavior described sounds gay. Is the poster certain it isn't simple campy humor that is making him uncomfortable?

"I love being used" and "I was orgasmic" both sound gender-bending gay, in the old-school sense (ie, camp). The "I love to see you on your knees" bit is especially hilarious if the speaker is gay and the person on their knees is female.

Note, the "I love being used" line is really self-denigrating. Who is harassed here?

Is it possible that the poster needs some diversity/sensitivity training? Not trying to be insulting. Just seeing this a totally different view from that which is already much-expressed.
posted by Goofyy at 8:24 AM on April 7, 2006

Late getting back to this's not so much that the co-workers are tragic victims of extreme harrassment; clearly, this is not the case. The point is that it's tiresome and unprofessional to constantly sexualize normal work discourse with stupid TMI comments. Whether the comments are self-denigrating or not, overtly sexual or simply "naughty", they doesn't belong in a conversation about using the correct photocopier codes or writing evaluations or whatever. The colleague of anonymous should grow up and act like a professional, instead as if he's auditioning for SNL. The fact that he also has some authority and likely knows that he can get away with being a horse's ass without criticism makes his actions even more lame. Not criminal or evil, just...lame.

Anonymous, maybe you can call him on the lameness without sounding hysterical with a quizzical look and an "um, so, getting back to the topic..."
posted by desuetude at 6:31 PM on April 9, 2006

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