How not to handle harassment cases

Recent news stories have highlighted the issue of harassment in an academic setting. On the whole, harassment cases are quite rare in universities, but when they arise they can be very complex. Academic discourse is robust, as lecturers learn early to defend their position aggressively, and what might appear to be vibrant debate to some can quickly turn into something perceived as harassment by others. In addition, while academic institutions tend to have very strong hierarchies, faculty still work with significant personal autonomy, and this makes interpersonal conduct hard to control or monitor.

Universities will these days invariably have formal procedures for dealing with such cases, allowing complaints to be made and then handled sensitively in order to establish the facts and then consider solutions and remedies. However, according to a report in the Sunday Tribune newspaper last weekend, one person who has himself been in the news in this context, Dr Gerald Morgan of Trinity College Dublin, has argued that harassment claims ‘should be handled by gardaí [police] and not college authorities’. He is reported as explaing this further as follows:

‘These things are too serious to be dealt with by university machinery because it gets out of hand. It’s very hard to see how you can set up an independent panel in these matters because of the inter-relations of the staff.’

Just in case anyone should be minded to follow this suggestion, it is worth emphasising that it is bad advice. The role of a police force is to investigate and establish whether a criminal offence has been committed and, if it has, to arrange for appropriate procedures possibly including a prosecution. For such a prosecution to succeed it must be established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the offence was committed.

An harassment procedure in a university, or any other place of employment, has a different focus. It needs to determine whether the actions of one employee may have caused distress to another, and whether actions are needed to address the issue and where possible restore a good working relationship. In such a process a finding of harassment may well be made even where the conduct would not amount to a criminal offence. Furthermore, a key focus is not to establish ‘guilt’, but to restore confidence.

Universities need to get this right, as the maintenance of a secure workplace in which employees can be confident that they will not be bullied or harassed should be a priority. Dr Morgan’s proposal is wholly misguided, not least because it suggests that responsibility for dealing with harassment can be passed on to the police. It should not be seriously considered.

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7 Comments on “How not to handle harassment cases”

  1. Victor Says:

    I do not understand Dr Morgans argument.

    Sexual harassment is a matter for the Universities to handle.

    The police will be involved in cases of sexual assault and certain new media actions such as stalking, making threats, hacking, producing fictitious evidence, etc

    Also, should harassment cases go to Civil trial, the test will be ” the preponderance of the evidence ”
    not the Criminal standard of ” beyond a reasonable doubt”

    I can understand why Universities take allegations of harassment seriously and involve outside investigators.
    If they did not they would have a huge exposure for civil litigation and their insurance companies would dramatically raise the premiums— or decline coverage altogether.

  2. wendymr Says:

    Dr Morgan is being highly disingenuous. As a lawyer, he knows very well that the standard of proof required in cases involving the police is very different from that involved in civil cases – which is what most workplace disputes would be if they became a matter for the law. He is effectively saying that no employer should take action in any complaint against an employee unless that employee’s action constitutes a criminal offence.

    So does he believe that employees should be able to get away with other types of misconduct? How about habitual lateness? Poor job performance? Treating a female (or ethnic minority) colleague less favourably than a male (or white) colleague? Creating a hostile work environment? Having an inappropriate relationship with a student? The consequence of his argument is that employees like himself should have complete freedom to do any or all of the above without any action being taken by his employer.

    I note he’s about to retire. Clearly, not before time.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    Its hard to imagine a more daft suggestion. Can you imagine the response of the gardaí if the complainant in the recent UCC case had approached them?
    Frankly, they have more important things to do and would lack the skill-sets to deal with these issues.

  4. Victor Says:

    The Evans case may yet reach the criminal courts and prison time, not in relation to the harassment matter but flowing from his behavior since then

    1/His Allegations of hacking into his Facebook account, hacking is a criminal matter these days and false allegations can also be criminal
    2/His Allegations of a conspiracy by drug companies to punish and muzzle him, again a criminal matter, as can be false allegations in these matters.
    In the civil area such allegations could lead to penalties in the multimillions, let alone legal costs

    The matter is far from over but it looks to me like Evans will be in litigation for years– it reminds me of Nixon– it was not his original offense that caused his downfall– it was what he did after wards.
    Also,in all these ” after issues” re Evans will not be covered by his union he will have to pay the lawyers.
    His behavior has destroyed his brand and he will not be getting any lecture tours to the US because
    1/ He will no longer have an academic position nor credibility
    2/ Pinker and Hawkins have thrown him under the bus
    3/ The feminists in the US will block him and he will not even have the ear of the Fox News crowd

    End of story

  5. Jilly Says:

    When I read that recent piece featuring Gerald Morgan, I couldn’t work out whether the Irish Times was trying to be deliberately provocative, or whether they just hadn’t bothered to do their research. Either way, it was poor journalism, and I assume deeply offensive to the other members of TCD’s staff who have been affected by the cases alluded to, but who get no voice in the discussion.

  6. Victor Says:

    Evans twitters today

    “I’ve blogged in The Times today – – about how to hedge your holiday against volcanic ash”

    He should have hedged against the end of his career, solvency, prospects etc before he engaged in his self destructive media campaign

    Can he spend 5,000 euros on a holiday in Spain, can he leave Ireland for 2 weeks in July?
    He made the wrong bet with the bookies and will lose that 250 euros also.

    Does Evans have any idea what he done to himself?

  7. Steven Says:

    Self-righteous twaddle and over-simplification! If allegations such as ‘physical intimidation and harassment ‘are made against you in a university context of course the gardai should come in and investigate them: they are allegations of criminal behaviour (as any competent lawyer knows). All depends on how highly you rate your reputation. It is easy to criticise until you are put in the position of having serious allegations levelled against you and they are unfounded. Are universities competent enough to oversee proper investigations?! It would be naive to think so.

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