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See Something / Say Something

Sunglasses by BatgirlBobWe’ve heard this statement a lot lately, “see something / say something,” but we’ve heard it in a context that most of will never face.  But how often do we see something on our college or university campuses– something that is questionable, something that is odd, something that is just plain wrong– and we don’t say anything to anyone about it?  The situations we witness might not involve minors, but the situations could still be wrong, could still be abusive, or could still be illegal.  It’s important to recognize, too, that we may not just see these situations; we may be experiencing them ourselves.

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post for ProfHacker, Sexual Harassment Scenarios: What Would You Do? This post, like many of the situational posts I’ve written here, outline sexual harassment scenarios we might encounter on a university or college campus.  The situations outlined in that 2010 post were real.  In each of those scenarios, an employee or student was sexually harassed by another employee or faculty member.  I then asked readers how they would handle those situations, and readers provided interesting comments.  The post and its comments sparked an important discussion that seem relevant today.  (Take a look if you are unfamiliar with this post.)

The definition of sexual harassment is a vague.  The EEOC (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) defines sexual harassment this way:  Sexual harassment occurs, they claim, “when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”  Even with that definition, sexual harassment can still be difficult to define, as what’s appropriate in one location or with one group of people, may not be appropriate in another location or with other groups of people.

Like other issues of this sort, most sexual harassment on university and college campuses goes unreported because victims are somehow made to feel responsible for what has happened to them. They are afraid that other people will say they asked for it, that no one will believe them, that they won’t be able to prove it, or that they will be labeled as troublemakers, as “too sensitive.”  In a rough economy, as we have now, they could be afraid of losing a job. Rather than face these consequences, many victims will silently endure the abuse, they will transfer, or they will quietly leave the position without saying anything about the abuses. This leaves the harasser free to victimize other employees or students.  Additionally, many factors can impede our ability or willingness to report what we see or what has been reported to us.   We deny it.  We doubt ourselves and our perceptions. We think someone else will come forward.  We don’t want to make a mistake.  We, too, fear losing our jobs.

It’s a complex issue that most of us want to avoid.  However, we can do better than allow sexual harassment to continue.

What can you do if you witness abuses or if someone tells you about harassment they experience?

  • Believe your gut reaction.  Believe what the victim tells you.
  • Support people who tell you about their problems with harassers.
  • Encourage them to take action.
  • Share this information with others: a supervisor, human resources, the sexual harassment office on your campus, the police (if necessary).  And follow up to see that the issue has been resolved.
  • If you observe sexual harassment, offer to be a witness.
  • Don’t accept sexual harassment as “the way things are” or as a joking matter.

What can you do if you are harassed by another in your workplace?

  • Tell the harasser that you do not welcome her/his advances.  Don’t just hope the abuse goes away.
  • If the harassment continues, keep records (dates / times) of the abuses.  Unfortunately, the motives of sexual harassment victims are often doubted (“we believe that you believe it,” or “what did you do to deserve it?”), and you may need those records to support your claim.
  • If initial efforts to stop the harassment fail, go to a supervisor, or use your university or college’s grievance system.  Ask for written answers to your complaints.
  • If the supervisor (or higher authority) still does not believe you, don’t hesitate to keep moving up the ladder.  Go higher and exercise your right to appeal.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com once stated (in a wholly unrelated context), “It’s okay to make mistakes, but it’s not okay to be timid.”  The point is, sexual harassment happens all the time on our campuses, and other than mandatory sexual harassment compliance training through a Human Resources department, we don’t usually address the issue in any productive way.  And we need to.  If we question and challenge those situations we know are odd or wrong, we might make mistakes.  So what?  Consider what can happen if we don’t question or we don’t challenge what we know to be wrong.  If we are going to stop harassment of individuals or groups on our campuses, we must not be timid.

How about you?  What do you tell your students or coworkers who experience sexual harassment? What can you add to the lists above (about experiencing harassment or about witnessing another’s abuse)?  Please leave comments and suggestions below.

[Image by Flickr user BatgirlBob and used under the Creative Commons license.]

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