It is an employer’s duty to preclude and seek to prevent sexual harassment. A good working environment is one without harassment. A good working environment retains and attracts good researchers and other employees.
Duty to prelude
The Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombudsman summarizes the employer’s duty to preclude and seek to prevent harassment in this way:
- The employer must have a clearly stated zero tolerance policy against harassment. This must be made known to all the employees.
- The employer has a duty to investigate whether a claim or suspicion of harassment is correct, even though the victim chooses not to report the behaviour.
- The organization must give employees and students adequate training in what constitutes harassment and discrimination, and what procedures the organization has for addressing it. It is important that there are clear procedures for reporting and dealing with harassment, including when a person in a leadership position commits harassment.
- The organization must have written procedures for registering and dealing with cases of harassment.
See the Ombudsman’s report on the prohibition against harassment in working life (2014) (in Norwegian only).
The Ombudsman recommends establishing industry-specific instruments. For the research sector this may include the following:
- Have a written contract with guidelines between an academic supervisor and the research assistant/master’s student/doctoral student.
- Compile an overview of the extent of sexual harassment using employee surveys.
Duty to prevent
- The employer must act in a professional manner. This entails how the complainant/accused party is treated. It is also important to maintain the duty of confidentiality, but provide the necessary information to the complainant and other parties involved, e.g. regarding the process.
- Measures to prevent harassment must be put in writing and followed up.
- Meetings with both parties must be held to clarify what has occurred.
- If the meetings form the basis for a reprimand or other reaction, this must be put in writing.
- Minutes of the meetings should be recorded: the background for the meeting, what was discussed and which measures the parties agreed on. The minutes must be signed by all parties to ensure that the parties are familiar with the contents.
- It is important to have a follow-up discussion with the person who has reported harassment to clarify whether the measures have helped to stop the harassment.
“The relationship is the most important thing, not the act itself. It is not the hand on the thigh that is the problem, but who it is and what the relationship is like. It may be anything from pleasant to extremely threatening.” – Hannah Helseth, doctoral research fellow
Academia is a hierarchical organization with many uneven power relations. The relationship between a student and academic supervisor and between a doctoral research fellow and professor are just two examples of this.
In addition, there are other factors inherent in the higher education sector and the research institute sector that may cause sexual harassment to go unnoticed. Academic freedom and the desire for autonomy may be seen as being contradictory to the management structure and the system for following up personnel.
Employee surveys – an important instrument
A challenge within the research sector is that many institutions have stopped asking about bullying and harassment in their employee surveys. One reason for this is that they believe questions about harassment and bullying highlight difficult issues that may draw attention away from other important questions about the working environment. Another reason is that it is difficult to deal with harassment reported in an employee survey because the surveys are anonymous.
The response of other institutions and researchers to this is that if one or more employees report sexual harassment anonymously – such as in an employee survey – it is an excellent opportunity to address harassment in the organization and take steps to improve the working environment.
The ramifications of not asking employees about harassment – both administrative and academic personnel – may be that harassment cases do not come to light because the threshold for reporting harassment is too high.