18

I apologize in advance that I cannot write about details, as they contain identifying information about the senior colleague in question.

The low-down is that I am a tenure-track professor at a US institution, and one of the tenured professors (married with children) in my department (and in fact, in my research group) has been harassing me for the past month.

He sends me personal emails commenting on my personal life and asking about my weekend plans, he shows up to academic events in the department that I organize (but has no academic interest in these events), and "paces" the hallway in front of my office whenever I have my door open (once I counted him pace by my door at least 10 times in an hour, and my office is located in a quiet corner and he had no reasons to be there). He also visits my office and tries to come up with excuses (department politics and gossip that I have no interest in hearing) to chat with me in the evenings. These visits have gotten increasingly creepy, although I cannot describe them without going into personal details. So far, there has not been any physical touch. (It's naturally a lot more creepy than what I've written, but I'm trying to keep out any identifying information and stick to general statements.)

So far, I have been playing it safe in an attempt to not escalate the situation by responding in monosyllables and hinting at every opportunity that I am busy. I ignore all personal emails. However, this colleague in question clearly doesn't understand social cues, and being cold and disengaging from non-necessary interaction hasn't worked so far.

I am also documenting these interactions since about 2 weeks ago. I am thinking about getting a recording app to record our conversations (I live in a one-party consent state).

The problem is that as he is a senior colleague who understands my research area, I am worried about my tenure case that if I directly tell him off, he may turn vengeful and make my life difficult. But I would like this to stop, and I would like to hear some suggestions on how to handle this.


Addendum (which involves some of my personal opinions): I spoke to close friends in academia (but no one in my department knows yet; I was hoping that the situation would die down, but it hasn't so far). Interestingly enough, the advice I got was clearly divided based on gender.

My male friends were very cautious, and convinced me to not send direct emails telling my colleague that I do not want any interactions other than a professional one. They thought that until I was 100% sure that he was making advances, I should not escalate it and wait for things to die down.

My female friends thought that I should establish boundaries early on, and directly tell him no, because a single faculty cannot strongly affect tenure cases. Sadly, most of them experienced something similar, and they said that once you establish boundaries, these kinds of people tend to fear you a little bit, and they back off quickly.

I found one question somewhat related to my case (although in this case, the OP did not have tenure on the line). It saddened me to read the answers, however. A lot of the suggestions, coming from males and females alike, insinuated that somehow the OP was at fault, in the following instances.

  1. The OP is a "fresh meat" so people are going to be interested, so just wait it out: I felt that being a fresh face was not something wrong; I wished that the answerers would focus on the fact that the behavior of OP's colleagues was inappropriate, and talk about how to change their behaviors instead of placing the burden of "bearing with the unwanted advances until the male colleagues got tired of her".
  2. Some answers suggested that the OP dresses down (and at least one answer suggested that OP's hemlines must be elevated). I object to this answer, because the OP should not have to change her behavior or clothes if it's not wrong. I felt that this answer was the academia-equivalent of telling a rape victim that she had it coming because she was wearing revealing clothes.
  3. Another answer suggested that the OP should just bear it out and establish good working relationship with these people. Again, I did not agree with this answer, as it puts the burden of reconciling with her aggressors on the OP, who is the victim here (you would never tell a rape victim to reconcile with her attacker, right?)

So, I understand that questions of this type can often bring out very biased answers (and even women can have the same type of bias as men), that it can bring out charged reactions, and that despite all of our advances as a society, victim-blaming can seep through our answers.

But the answers that I am looking for here is the kind of things that I can do that doesn't blame me for the current situation, and that doesn't force me to bow down to my senior colleague in order to repair the relationship at some point. I am not afraid of fights, I am not afraid of going public, I don't care if everyone in the department knows about this, and I am not afraid of giving up my job if it comes to that (this is neither here nor there, but my family is rich enough that I don't really need a job; obviously I find fulfillment and enjoyment from my job and I'd like to keep it, but not in a toxic environment such as this.) I just want him to stop and acknowledge that what he did was wrong, and that he should fear for his job if he ever does anything like this again, preferably while not jeopardizing my chances at tenure. And I'd like my future female colleagues to feel safer about my department.

  • 1
    I'm voting to close this question. Although we don't support duplicate questions (the fact that the OP doesn't agree with the answers is immaterial), my main reason for the close vote is that the question in current form can't be objectively answered in a way that could be useful to other individuals (i.e. depends too much on personal factors and preferences). – user3209815 Mar 7 at 8:17
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat and future comments will be deleted without warning. – StrongBad Mar 7 at 22:36
  • Have you had any contact with his wife? Even if the university might not have a limited ability to discipline him thanks to his tenure, I’m sure that his wife would be able to make his life a living hell if she wanted to - and if she were to find out that her husband was perving on women at his work and trying to cheat on her, she very well might. – nick012000 May 21 at 22:45
9

I would recommend to set a boundary, e.g. by responding to an inappropriate e-mail with e.g.

Dear xxx, thank you for your e-mail, but I have to tell you, that I feel uncomfortable with such kind of e-mails and they are inappropriate. I really appreciate your professional expertise and support, but I would like to stick to a working relationship.

If he ignores this, you at least tried to tell him your point of view (which could help in case of an escalation).

Incorporating comments: I gave this answer because you wrote that he did not react to subtile indications. I know from many males that they "did not notice that their behaviour was regarded as inappropriate". It is helpful to be very clear at least once. On the other hand, I'm not resided in the US and maybe my answer would sound rude in your ears. You should modify it in a way that shows respect and appreciation for the professional experience and support, but makes clear that there is no further private interest.

Regarding the tenure: If you feel there is any kind of problem arising, you can contact an ombudsperson and show your (and his) mails and ask him to be excluded from the process.

  • 1
    Do you believe that this will not jeopardize my tenure case, or destroy my professional relationship with him? (I'm guessing I have about 30 years to go, although given the current climate, I can see myself wanting to move soon). Your answer feels a little bit one-dimensional to me, in the sense that it is definitely the correct one, but not the one that is simple to follow. – user-2147481856 Mar 7 at 8:35
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    I gave this answer because you wrote that he did not react to subtile indications. I know from many males that they "did not notice that their behaviour was regarded as inappropriate" and maybe this happens to me as well and I don't know it (I hope this is not the case...). It is helpful to be very clear at least once. On the other hand, I'm not resided in the US and maybe my answer would sound rude in your ears. You should modify it in a way that shows respect and appreciation for the professional experience and support, but makes clear that there is no further provate interest. – OBu Mar 7 at 8:40
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    Regarding the tenure: If you feel there is any kind of problem arising, you can contact an ombudsperson and show your (and his) mails and ask him to be excluded from the process. – OBu Mar 7 at 8:42
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    IIf I were the colleague, I would feel better if you deliver the message personally than via a third person (e.g. dean, seniour colleague, ...) – OBu Mar 7 at 8:44
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    @OBu I think you should include your comment in the answer. Keeping records and getting an ombudsperson on bord may indeed be a good strategy to keep the incriminated person out of the tenure decision. I don't know. In any case, the solution must be some combination of (1) setting boundaries and (2) removing the person from a position of influence and/or finding strong allies – henning -- reinstate Monica Mar 7 at 8:54
8

I'm going to assume you are in the US.

Every college and university in the US that accepts federal financial has a sexual harassment policy. The first thing you should do is read the policy so that you know who the main official actors are and what would be involved in talking to them. However that doesn't mean that I would follow them immediately. This is because, as you know, in some institutions going the formal route will backfire, while in others it will not. However, sometimes you have the option to say "I am not making a formal complaint at this time, however I want to establish a contemporaneous record of what is happening." Nonetheless it may be that the office will have little choice in the actions it takes. If anything you could email them and ask hypothetical questions about the process rather than discuss your specific case.

However, at my institution "responsible employees" such as deans and chairs must report to that office. But until you make a formal report the office can't do anything but give advice to the reporter, look at whether there is a history with the person doing the harassing, and be prepared for if a report from you or someone else comes in. So what I would do is make a report to a responsible employee and tell them you do not want to make a formal report at this time, but you want them to be aware and help you to get the behavior to stop. You could even mention that you know that despite this that they will have to make a report to the Title IX officer. Make sure you document this report with a follow up email so that if there is a problem at tenure time you have that. If it turns out that the person you reported to didn't do their mandatory reporting that will help you. Similarly the fact that your chair or dean was informed of the situation will help you if in the unfortunate situation you have to appeal a negative decision from your department or if you end up having to go to court. I know it is unpleasant to think about, but you should think of the ways things could play out.

Do you have an annual official meeting with your chair? This is also a place where you can express your concerns and talk about how dealing with this situation is undermining your work. You could also mention that you are concerned that he will advocate for you to be denied tenure. Of course this puts your chair in a position of having to assure you that this will not be allowed to happen.

You did a good thing in accessing your networks, but I'm going to suggest that you activate your on campus networks of other women especially somewhat more senior women. If you don't have those networks, think about who you might have met at an event or meeting and just email them and say "could I come talk to you about about a question about our institution that I feel I can't talk to my chair about" and then ask them what they know about how these cases have been handled and what their advice is. Do not assume that if the first one you talk to is unsympathetic that others will also be. Do you know the famous thing that Mr. Rogers said about what to do in an emergency, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

So all of that is to say that it is essential that you get what is happening on the record so that if there is a future problem you have already documented the situation and that you get some local help. This problem could be that this person argues against your tenure or that the situation escalates. Currently you don't sound like you are being physically threatened, but that could happen.

If you follow the responses to sexual harassment cases in the news you will notice that there is a repeated pattern of victim blaming where "why didn't she follow channels?" is one thing that is said, but also that contemporaneous documentation is extremely important. Basically it will be a lot harder for him to cause problems for your tenure case if you have good records and people know about them, since they can discount anything he says about you and also make sure not to have any outside reviewers who are known to be his friends. The "don't do anything" advice is, therefore, not helpful.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that if this is a sudden change it could be that your colleague is having mental health problems. That's another reason to take steps locally.

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    Great answer, and especially the advice to “read the policy.” (The OP says they are tenure-track at a US institution. It is extremely unlikely that an institution with tenure is not required to have a policy.) – Steve Kass Mar 8 at 1:11
5

From what you have described, I don't think his behavior has crossed the line into sexual harassment. Not that I'm an expert, but it might fall under "creating a hostile work environment".

I would talk to your department chair, if that is safe, or the Dean, just to get advice. At the minimum, that will create a record that you felt uncomfortable. I am not sure it is in anyone's best interest to file a formal complaint at this time, but it is certainly good to let your chair/dean know about the situation and let them take some responsibility about how it is solved. They might take full responsibility for it! Like: "Sorry you had to deal with that, I know Jeff can be a bit unaware of social cues, let me talk to him and if you don't think there in an improvement in the next week, let me know."

It's their job to handle things like this, so I certainly recommend sharing the burden of how to proceed with them.

5

Based on how you phrased your question and especially your addendum it feels like you are very strongly leaning towards directly telling your colleague to stop and potentially further escalating this if he does not react. It's also clear you understand and can deal with potential negative consequences for your career.

An escalation will be a lot more effective if you already know how well your institution handles harassment cases. It will also help to know what the general sense is in your institution about your harasser. If you know that, you can better determine how to escalate, how much material you need to convince other people, who to go to and who not to go to, etc.

You mention you'd like to have your harasser "to stop and acknowledge that what he did was wrong". That's a very natural desire but the chances of him doing that voluntarily are probably very small. So maybe don't prioritise that too highly.

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    Thanks, you're right that it would be good to know what I'm getting into by looking at precedents etc. I would probably talk to some young female faculty in my department (imo it's really unfair that the women tend to get burdened with all these things, but I guess that remark is really for another thread...) Just to clarify, though: I do want to keep my job, and walking out to get involved in a legal battle would be my absolute last resort! If this can be resolved without escalating, even better. Maybe there's some magic phrase that's not rude but will let him see that he's inappropriate... – user-2147481856 Mar 7 at 9:30
  • @user-2147481856 Yes, I rewrote my answer to be a bit more clear about what I meant by 'escalating' (i.e. first telling him to stop, and if he doesn't react, take it further). In terms of a magic phrase, I can't do better than what OBu suggested. It might be more magic when spoken by someone who's higher in the hierarchy. – Designerpot Mar 7 at 10:14
2

The OP could seek support from a trusted member of their department (e.g., a senior colleague, the head of department, ...) to deliver an anonymous (verbal or written) message---outlying boundaries---to the inappropriate colleague, rather than the OP setting boundaries themselves (e.g., as female friends of the OP have suggested and as suggested in an answer).

If handled well, this approach has the advantage that the inappropriate colleague need never know the OP's identity. Of course, they may have their suspicions, but acting upon them could be outright dangerous for the inappropriate colleague, since there's an established record of inappropriate behaviour (known to the trusted department member) and the inappropriate colleague may fear that vengeance could lead to dismissal for sexual harassment.

2

My male friends were very cautious, and convinced me to not send direct emails telling my colleague that I do not want any interactions other than a professional one. They thought that until I was 100% sure that he was making advances, I should not escalate it and wait for things to die down.

My female friends thought that I should establish boundaries early on, and directly tell him no, because a single faculty cannot strongly affect tenure cases. Sadly, most of them experienced something similar, and they said that once you establish boundaries, these kinds of people tend to fear you a little bit, and they back off quickly.

I'm going to agree with your female friends here; that it is best to establish boundaries early on. However, I also think that it is best to avoid accusations of misconduct in the first instance, and make your first move with a simple conversation, rather than an email or a report to HR. I would recommend that you have a frank conversation with this man, establish the things he is doing that make you uncomfortable, and give a clear indication of the boundary you would like to set in your relationship. I think this would be better done with a polite and gentle conversation in the first instance.

Some men show interest in women in a way that is not malicious, but which is discomforting to them. Such men are often not terribly good at reading subtle signals of disinterest or discomfort, and so they benefit from being told that they are making you uncomfortable. As a general rule, males are very explicit communicators, so if you would like a change in your relationship with this man, that can probably be obtained by having a conversation to that effect. Unless he is a particularly strange man, he will probably be quite mortified once he finds out he is making you uncomfortable.

If you take this approach, there is always the possibility that it will go badly --- e.g., a hostile response to your conversation, or some kind of petulant cessation of the entire professional relationship. However, I would estimate that nine times out of ten this will get you the best result.

1

I would shut it down hard and in an email.

If you have a spouse or boyfriend, it can be helpful to mention that you are off the market and that you don't like someone else hitting on you when you are with someone else.

Really, I think there is probably enough here to go ahead and go to HR department now. It's not like you want to kill the guy. But get him warned and that will back him off.

I am male and had a sexual harassment situation in grad school. It wasn't even flattering (like someone who likes you and you just turn it down) but a just a strange older lady who kept bugging me.

I am very far from litigious or touchy or sensitive. But at a certain point, you just have to stick up for yourself or you are letting people walk on you. Didn't want to end up with a bunny in the pot and this lady wasn't just smitten, she was creepy. I ended up taking it to the HR department and they got her shut down.

[Print all the emails.]

I wouldn't just ignore it until tenure. Yeah, there is some danger it could affect your case. But so what. Do you really want to put up with Mr. Weirdo if that gets you tenure?

Just reading between the lines, I don't get the impression that you are they type who is trying to instigate grievances. Get the impression that Mr. Weirdo is the one at fault.

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    Your second paragraph is bullshit. Saying no should be sufficient. We shouldn't have to say that we already belong to some other man to get someone to back off. – Johanna Mar 8 at 10:17
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    Oh, I remember now, belonging to another man is the only valid reason in the minds of other men to stop coming on to somebody. sarcasm off – penelope Mar 8 at 12:05
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    Commenters are absolutely correct that you shouldn't have to say you belong to some other man. @penelope it's not that belonging to another man equals a valid reason to stop coming on to somebody, it's the fear that the other man will respond physically, ie, it's just a threat. Outside of that point - which is almost just an aside to the rest of the post ('it might be helpful if ...') - this is actually a pretty good answer: "Take action to stop the behaviour either directly (email) or indirectly (HR). Document correspondence. And for your own sake, don't let it continue". – mcalex May 21 at 19:06
0

Not a specialist but sexual harassment perhaps has certain connotations that aren't evident from the Q text. It could also be a case of bothering/boring behaviour and no more. In both cases abd even if perhaps others have already suggested this:

Make clear to him/her that the behaviour is uncomfortable to you by viva voce as well as keep records of emails already received and or exchanged.

This will be useful in case escalating the situation will be unavoidable.

But it is quite possible that s/he realise that is wrongly behaving, if clearly informed. Sometimes we really need of someone opening our eyes.

It is somehow forced to think of retaliation. Academia is not much different from the life outside, and the vast majority of the times people do elaborate refusal without much of vengeance desire.

I would perhaps escalate just after, if the pressure from that person doesn't cease and/or that person will complicate your work in response.

  • Why would orally be better than in writing? – Azor Ahai Mar 7 at 19:18
  • Perhaps is the same. One should know the email already sent. A clear mail should work as well. But anyway, if the relationship was ok before, it seems to me better to take a couple of minutes to clearly say what is OP situation. . "I am not interested in discussing such things" in an email and something to explain that a behaviour is cause of discomfort are two different things, at least it could be. @Azor Ahai – Alchimista Mar 8 at 8:14
  • I like how this answer starts; and while I don't think it's really OPs duty (or the duty of anybody who feels harassed) to educate their harasser, or open their eyes, but informing the person to stop is an important step that should be taken first, and nothing wrong hoping the behaviour will stop then. Sadly, you follow that by only a very vague suggestion to "(perhaps) escalate it later" for the case it does not stop, with no suggestions how to do this considering tenure is on the line and the other person involved is a senior tenured colleague from the same department and discipline. – penelope Mar 8 at 12:01
  • @penelope I do not wish to anyone be harassed - sexually or not - at work place, and especially by a senior. I do not have a nice answer to that except that academia can still be one of the most protected places. I wanted to make sure that OP frankly try to stop this with a brief and mature discussion that might take a couple of minutes. Already feeling sexually harassed instead of just bothered (it might be indeed a lot bothering) suggest to me that she has somehow circumvented a decise but polite discussion. – Alchimista Mar 8 at 13:42

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