Research suggests that allegations of abuse are the tip of the iceberg; most incidents are unreported. Multiple reasons contribute to this, including socialization to internalize blame and the accompanying feelings of shame, denial and minimization of the seriousness of the incident, and fear of consequences for speaking out.
More than 50% of 300 academic cases reviewed that involved professors as the perpetrators were cases of serial harassment (Cantalupo and Kidder 2017). In an ideal society, people would be empowered to come forward and report perpetrators so that they can't turn around and harass someone else. However, given current practices in the U.S. legal system, the imbalance of power in academic employment and training models, and the custom of universities and other organizations to cover up incidents for may reasons that do not involve the safety of their employees or students, reporting can occur at great personal risk of retaliation or defamation. Addressing the challenges that people being targeted by harassment and violence, especially women and members of underrepresented groups, face in our society (Epstein and Goodman 2018) and the institutional structures and cultures that fail to address these behaviors is imperative to create safe working and learning environments. We address the culture change needed to do this on our Creating inclusive climates resources page.
First, Offer Your Support
Some of this appeared on our Responding to hostile behaviors page but it's so important we will say it again.
It is never easy to know what to say or do when someone tells you they have been harassed or assaulted, especially if they are a friend, colleague, student, or a family member. Disclosing what happened to them can be extremely difficult, so being as supportive and non-judgmental as possible is key to facilitating a safe environment and creating a culture where others feel comfortable coming forward.
- Supporting can include providing resources, such as helping them call a hotline, accompany them when seeking medical attention, or helping them report the crime to police. Whether you are a witness or the victim is telling you their story second-hand, often listening is the best way to support an individual who has experienced harassment and/or assault. Here are some helpful and supportive phrases from RAINN you can utilize when checking in with a victim:
- "This is not your fault." Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind them, maybe even more than once, that they are not to blame.
- "I believe you." First off, it can be extremely difficult for people to come forward. Many victims of harassment and assault may feel ashamed or may be fearful that they will not be believed, taken seriously, or even be blamed for their experience. If you are not someone in charge of investigations, refrain from asking "why" questions as this can shame the individual and even discourage them from reporting. Your job is to support this person. Keep in mind that everyone responds to trauma differently, and lack of emotion or apathy is not a sign that the harassment or assault has not occurred.
- "You are not alone. I am here for you." Let them know that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story if they are comfortable sharing it. Assess if there are people in their life they feel comfortable going to or if they feel comfortable reporting. Remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them as they heal from the experience.
- "I'm sorry this happened. This shouldn't have happened to you." No one deserves to feel unsafe in their work environment. Acknowledge that their experience(s) have affected their life and that they did not do anything to deserve this treatment. Phrases like "This must be really tough for you," and, "I'm so glad you are sharing this with me," help to communicate empathy.
Reporting Assault or Sexual Assault
- Call 911 if you are in immediate danger
- Contact the local police department. Call the direct line of your local police station or visit the station in person. If you are on a college campus you may also be able to contact campus-based law enforcement.
- Visit a medical center. If you are being treated for injuries resulting from sexual assault, tell a medical professional that you wish to report the crime. You can also choose to have a sexual assault forensic exam. To find an appropriate local health facility that is prepared to care for survivors, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE (4673)
- For more information and answers to commonly asked questions and concerns regarding reporting to law enforcement such as time limits and forensic exams, please refer to RAINN
- For on and off-campus resources for reporting as well as mental health resources, please refer to our Responding to Harassment page:
Reporting Harassment or Bias
- Remember to DOCUMENT as much as you can as soon as you are able about the harassing behavior you and/or others have experienced.
- If an incident occurred in person, write down the date and time of an incident, what was said or done, and save it to a secure file location.
- If an incident occurs via email/texting/social media, save the emails or take a screen shot (ideally with the time/date also included) and once again save to a secure file location.
- Contact your manager, department chair, or Human Resources department
- For campus sources for reporting (one or more of these may not be available at all universities)
- Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center
- ADA Centers for Equity and Accessibility
- University Ombuds Office
- Academic Access and Achievement Center
- Office of Multicultural Affairs
- Office of Compliance
- Title IX Office
- Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
It is important to recognize that many people who come forward and report harassment and/or assault by a coworker or colleague may face backlash or retaliation from the perpetrator, management, or from their workplace community. So what is retaliation? The legal definition for retaliation occurs when an employee is punished for engaging in legally protected activity (such as reporting harassment and/or discrimination), including any negative job action, such as demotion, discipline, firing, salary reduction, or job or shift reassignment. But retaliation can also be more subtle and thus be difficult to prove legally.
According to the EEOC, examples of retaliation include, but are not limited to...
- work-related threats, warnings, or reprimands
- negative/lowered evaluations
- transfers to less prestigious or desirable work or work locations
- making false reports against you in the media
- threatening reassignment; scrutinizing work or attendance more closely than that of other employees, without justification
- removing supervisory responsibilities, restricting funding or graduate student assignment, without justification
- engaging in abusive verbal or physical behavior that is reasonably likely to deter protected activity, even if it is not yet "severe or pervasive" as required for a hostile work environment
- It is important to DOCUMENT instances of retaliation. For more information on what your rights are regarding retaliation, please visit our Legal Contexts page or the EEOC Website.
Institutional Responses to Reporting
- Professor Julie Libarkin at Michigan State University shares her experience during the reporting and investigative process at her institution and outlines a number of strategies for improving the process.
- I Spoke up against my harasser — and paid a steep price by Stephanie Singer
- Janet Stemwedel explores how targets of harassment in scientific communities have chosen to respond to it in a three part series: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3
- Epstein, D. and L. Goodman. 2018. Discounting credibility: Doubting the testimony and dismissing the experiences of domestic violence survivors and other women. Georgetown University Law Center Scholarship @ Georgetown Law
- Cantalupo, N.C. and W. Kidder. 2017. A Systematic look at a serial problem: Sexual harassment of students by university faculty. Utah Law Review, Forthcoming
For More Reading
- Julie Libarkin, who leads the Geocognition Research Group at Michigan State University, maintains an updated list of hundreds of cases in academia since the mid 1980s: NOT A FLUKE: THAT CASE OF ACADEMIC SEXUAL HARASSMENT, SEXUAL ASSAULT, SEXUAL MISCONDUCT, STALKING, VIOLATIONS OF DATING POLICIES, VIOLATIONS OF CAMPUS PORNOGRAPHY POLICIES, AND SIMILAR VIOLATION IS NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT!