Posted tagged ‘harassment’

How not to handle harassment cases

June 3, 2010

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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