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I’m doing my masters (while working full-time) and one of my professors from last semester, who is teaching my class this semester as well, always asks me, “Did you get your husband to do your homework?” He also asks me if I'm married before giving me feedback. I wish he would just give me the feedback like he does for the guys in my class. I've told him it doesn't matter if I'm married or not but he laughed at me. I outright told him to stop multiple times and he didn't listen.

He also said, “You aren’t going to get your husband to come in here and beat me up, are you?” I think he was making a joke but I'm "on the spectrum" so I'm not sure. I just said "no" and kept staring at him. I'm very socially awkward.

I’m not married and I don’t wear any rings, I don't think he is thinking I'm married.

I was thinking of going to some university higher-up about it. I documented everything contemporaneously and they won’t be able to claim I’m bitter over a bad grade, because he actually gave me quite a good grade in my previous class. The current class has just started today so no grade yet.

I want to go to the program head or a higher up at the university. But I don't want to persecute my professor. I know there is a lot of persecution against conservative professors. I think he is just expressing the conservative view that women should be married by my age (I'm 30 - he doesn't know my exact age but can probably guess I'm 27-33). I understand the point of view, but sometimes it doesn't work out. My family believes the same and they tried to get me to married. My ex fiance and I were engaged for 10 months and ended it then, ended up for the better as we would definitely have divorced. Nevertheless, I am not against marriage. I am no liberal. I just want my professor to STOP asking me about my marital status but he won't listen. I want to go to higher ups but I don't want to persecute my professor either.


EDIT This is not sexual harrassment. He is only asking me if I am married before giving me feedback and to know that my husband has not completed my homework (which would be academic dishonesty). Not for sex purposes. He is not seeking any relationship with me so it's not sexual harrassment. It may be sex-based harrassment since he is not harrassing my male classmates however it is not sexual at all and thus cannot be sexual harrassment

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10 Answers 10

96

Without going into legal definitions of what this is exactly, the bottom line is:

This is inappropriate, discriminatory behavior, and you shouldn’t put up with it.

It seems like you’ve already done your best to politely stop these kinds of comments with no success. The fact that you documented everything is really great. You should approach student affairs/ombudsman/Graduate studies division and report this. Keep a record of the report.

I’m willing to bet that you’re not the first student that encountered this behavior. One could hope that you’ll be the last if you report him.

I want to tell you that your school will make sure that your grades won’t suffer and that the outcome will be that the professor will face disciplinary action. In cases like this it’s unfortunately not always the case. Even more severe cases (eg outright sexual assault) have been covered up by university officials because of their bad press repercussions. I hope your university will do better.

I’m sorry this happened...

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    +1 "One could hope that you’ll be the last if you report him" – aaaaa says reinstate Monica Aug 30 at 1:24
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    @Dilworth From the question: "He is only asking me if I am married before giving me feedback and to know that my husband has not completed my homework ..." - The professor seems to be assuming that because OP is a woman, she must be asking for men's help on doing the homework, implying that it's likely women would not be able to do the homework by themselves. That is 100% discrimination. – marcelm Aug 30 at 17:26
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    @Spark Since the OP has expressed a desire for not persecuting the professor, perhaps you could add a little bit of advice on how to deal with that? Perhaps recommend that when reporting she expresses that she doesn't want punishment for the professor, but that she only wants the behaviour to stop. The outcome I'm hoping for is that the ombudsman/... adjusts their actions to maximize effectiveness while minimizing fall-out. – marcelm Aug 30 at 17:37
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    @Dilworth "discrimination is treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction towards, a person based on the group, class, or category to which the person is perceived to belong." The professor treats the OP different from her male peers, purely based on her gender. Different treatment based on a person's gender is discrimination. There's no ifs or buts about it. – marcelm Aug 30 at 18:22
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    @Dilworth "Also, you can't have it both ways: if it is sexual harassment, then it's probably not discriminatory" - That's a logical fallacy. There's no reason why it can't be both things. (Also, I never claimed it was sexual harassment, and I'm not familiar enough with the definition to argue if it is or isn't.) – marcelm Aug 30 at 18:26
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He also said, “You aren’t going to get your husband to come in here and beat me up, are you?” I think he was making a joke but I'm "on the spectrum" so I'm not sure. I just said "no" and kept staring at him. I'm very socially awkward.

I'm also "on the spectrum" and socially awkward.

One of the things that tends to happen to folk like you and me, while we're growing up, is that we get taught to blame ourselves whenever a social interaction goes badly - we get into the habit of assuming that we must have done something wrong.

It's not true, though. Sometimes the awkwardness isn't our fault at all - sometimes it's because the other person screwed up, and sometimes it's because they are an outright jerk. And that tendency to self-blame can make autistic/Aspie people very attractive targets to predatory types.

I'm not going to say that your professor is a sexual harasser... but I will say that there are plenty of stories of sexual harassment which start out with behaviour very similar to what you describe from your professor. Predatory types often use "jokes" as a way of testing where people's boundaries are - there's a sort of Schrodinger's Comedy thing where if you push back they'll fall back on "I was only joking", and try to make you feel bad for not being able to take a joke.

And when you stop pushing back, next time they will push a little further, and they will have a little more information about just how far they can push without you doing anything about it.

This guy has repeatedly done things that make you uncomfortable, even after you've asked him to stop. The awkwardness and discomfort here is not your fault and you have every right to take action about it.

He is only asking me if I am married before giving me feedback and to know that my husband has not completed my homework (which would be academic dishonesty).

(1) This is not an effective way to detect dishonesty. If you ask a dishonest person "are you being dishonest?" they're going to say no.

(2) It would also be academic dishonesty if any of the male students were getting their wives (or indeed sisters, brothers, friends, ...) to complete their homework. But it doesn't sound as if he's asking them about that. Why not?

You've already made a great start by documenting things, and going to the program head or university HR would be a good next step. If you're concerned about his career, consider this: sooner or later, if not you, some other woman will almost certainly make a complaint about this behaviour, and things may not go as well for him. The earlier he learns that it's unacceptable, the better for everybody concerned.

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    This sort of attitude is both self-pitiful and highly cynical. Not helpful ways of looking at the situation or yourself. Obviously the poster has done nothing wrong, but the focus has to be on how to deal with the behaviour, whatever its motives, at face value. Assumptions or vilification of the professor (whether justified or not) are very much unhelpful things to do. – Noldorin Aug 31 at 3:35
  • @Noldorin Where in any of that are you seeing "assumptions or vilification" of the professor? I discussed the possibility of him being a predatory type, since it's important to be aware of that possibility. And while it's obvious to me that none of this is OP's fault, it wasn't clear to me whether she also knew that, so I reminded her; I'm not sure how you're interpreting that as "self-pity". – Geoffrey Brent Aug 31 at 4:06
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    Well, fair enough if you didn’t mean that. I just don’t like to see an extended discussion of him being a “predator” (with undertones that he is one) without knowing a lot more. It’s not particularly relevant to how she should respond in her actions. Many men (and women) just enjoy flirting with no intention of going anywhere. That’s inappropriate too, but who knows if that was the case even (decent probability but still). As for self-pity, your second and third paragraphs somewhat suggest that to me. Agreed that self-blame (on the opposite end if the scale) is also nasty. – Noldorin Aug 31 at 13:19
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    If my above interpretation is mistaken, perhaps you’d be so kind as to add a small caveat / balancing sentence to your above post. In that case, would gladly take back my down-vote. – Noldorin Aug 31 at 13:20
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    No, escalating it immediately instead taking a proportional and gradual is exactly the wrong thing to do. This is paranoid behaviour and extreme in any case. If you think this way, frankly I don't think you should be the one giving out advice here. But look, debate is getting nowhere, so let's end this now and let the poster decide what convinces her! – Noldorin Sep 1 at 2:48
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This behavior is not OK in academic and any professional setting. If you feel bad reporting this behavior, consider: this professor is wasting your time, that you could have invested in self-improvement or hanging out with your friends.

That is not just "expressing conservative views" that is wasting your time and energy. To make it easier to deal with, consider what you've been doing if each time you talk to professor, he start telling you how good is vegan diet or how you need to do ketogenic diet, or how you need to eat meat to live forever. It is all the same activities that have no place in professional setting like university. You owe it yourself to report this behavior, hopefully the University will work to correct it.

  • Agreed. These are not "conservative views" in current US culture; they're represent very creepy behavior and quite possibly sexual harassment. – bob Aug 30 at 19:34
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I have to ask: Is your professor foreign? Indian, perhaps?

I ask because I am an Indian American and this is pretty much exactly how men in my family behave towards women who they perceive as junior to them, such as subordinates, junior coworkers, and students. If this is the situation here, you are right to identify it as non-sexual; it's not sexual, it's condescending and demeaning. However, sexual harassment includes what you consider sex-based harassment, so it's still sexual harassment even if it's not precisely sexual.

There is a reason men who behave like this frequently find themselves in meetings with HR in the private sector; in a university, they are allowed to get away with it, but they don't have to. I'd suggest simply taking your documentation and reporting it. Holding people accountable for their actions is not "persecution", no matter their political affiliation/ideology or national background. Any private sector company would have fired this guy long ago. No reason to go easy on him just because he's an academic (assuming he is; I'm almost done with my MS as well, and most of my professors are not academics - they teach only part-time).

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    I don't think that being from India has anything to do with it here. There are plenty of men for around the world who behave badly and condescendingly toward women and others. Likewise, there are plenty of Indian men who behave properly. – Buffy Aug 30 at 15:45
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    @Buffy It does have something to do with it, because if he's Indian, odds are he doesn't mean any harm by it. He's behaving that way not out of malice but because he thinks it's normal. Of course, the result is harmful if the asker isn't able to get feedback on her assignments or what not, so she still needs to act. But the intention is entirely non-malicious on the professor's part if it's his cultural norm. Let's not pretend all cultures are the same. – dcacat Aug 30 at 16:44
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    Think about what you are saying. How many men, behaving badly, will not believe that what they are doing is permitted to them and normal? How many will admit that they are acting with bad intent? Their country of origin and their overall culture is not the villain here. – Buffy Aug 30 at 16:56
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    @dcacat Good point about being culturally aware. It may or may not be relevant (and this phenomenon certainly isn't unique to Indian culture I'd think), but while we can't and shouldn't take away the blame from this professor, it could at least explain why he's doing this – not fully conscious of its inappropriateness – and serve as an extra reason not to "throw the rulebook" at him right away. I have always found in my experience that giving people the benefit of the doubt about their intentions until they clearly prove otherwise is wise and fruitful. – Noldorin Aug 30 at 18:25
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    @einpoklum When it comes to discrimination on the basis of gender, there is no room for political correctness. Sorry. This is personal. My own father prevented me from studying computer science because of my gender. I was lucky to be allowed to attend college at all. As an Indian woman, my life has been all but ruined by harassment and assault at the hands of Indian men. The fact that 90% of the men who have mistreated me are Indian, while Indians are less than 10% of the overall population, gives me justification to link the behavior to the culture (not the race or ethnicity - the culture). – dcacat Sep 3 at 3:21
3

Firstly, well done for not assuming too much about the professor's motives – now, it may very well be the case he has an "interest" in you, but many professors are just eccentric or come from a different culture (perhaps he is even "on the spectrum" himself, and doesn't know how to behave appropriately to female students, not that I'm exculpating him at all). Regardless, you've been magnanimous not to presume too much, and that is only a credit to your character in an age where it is perhaps fashionable to do the exact opposite.

All this aside, his behaviour is most certainly inappropriate in the US (or any place in the Western world I'd think), and though it sounds like you've dealt with it sensibly and appropriately up to now, you need to do something more. Since his behaviour is so persistent, you need to be more forceful with him, if you can. If you find social interactions awkward, as you say, then it may not be easy, and I have nothing but sympathy for you, but I do recommend that the next time you get a chance to speak to him briefly in private (perhaps after the next inappropriate comment he makes), you tell him straight-out that his questions/joking (to give him the benefit of the doubt) makes you highly uncomfortable and that he really must desist. No mincing words, so there can be no doubt in his mind – I don't know exactly how you told him before, but just step it up in forthrightness and put on your most serious tone, whilst remaining respectful/polite. If he accepts that (and hopefully apologises!), then great, you can get on with things and ideally there will be no bias against you – keep an eye out for that, mind you. If however he brushes off this direct and earnest request, then you need to tell him there and then that you don't want to make things difficult for him, but you will speak to the higher-ups in your university if need be. Then leave it there, see if his behaviour changes, but obviously feel free to seek further advice here or elsewhere if he relapses even once – basically though, the next step would be to actually follow through on your threat. Let's hope you don't have to take it that far, yet don't be afraid of doing so if the previous fails.

Good luck, and have strength! :-)

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    Being "on the spectrum" might possibly explain not understanding that something was inappropriate the first time around. It does NOT explain or justify his persisting after she repeatedly told him this behaviour is unwelcome, and you're not doing autistic people any favours by suggesting that it does. – Geoffrey Brent Aug 30 at 23:52
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    @GeoffreyBrent We don't know exactly what the poster said to him; by her own admission, she finds these situations hard to read. Perhaps the signals she gave would be very clear to a typical person, but not to someone with cultural differences and/or mental health issues. It's conjecture, not a statement of fact. Exploring the possibilities here. And as I clearly stated in my post, it doesn't justify it regardless, but it may explain. It's best to talk about intentions and interpretations here in any case. Such black & white views aren't very helpful. Do try to be more understanding. – Noldorin Aug 31 at 3:29
  • "I outright told him to stop multiple times and he didn't listen". – Geoffrey Brent Aug 31 at 3:54
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    @GeoffreyBrent I saw that, thanks. But we don’t know how it was phrased or it what tone it was said still. “outright” may mean something different to someone “socially awkward” or of a different culture. If the professor similarly was socially awkward, he may have wrongly interpreter the poster as being playful, joking, or hard to get. Of course, he shouldn’t assume this either, but it’s a possibility. Not so black & white. This is why it’s best not to talk of motives, even if they are bad. Again, NOT excusing him; just saying, we should all keep an open mind. – Noldorin Aug 31 at 13:12
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    Your focus is too much on should's and ought's. That's all well and good, but it's neither very pragmatic nor understanding. I think we'll have to say we have very different views, and come from different cultural backgrounds, and leave it there. Cheerio. – Noldorin Sep 1 at 2:50
0

Two practical suggestions in addition to other relevant answer:

  1. I want to go to the program head or a higher up at the university. But I don't want to persecute my professor.

    Ok, so don't persecute: Talk to the program head informally - and tell him/her that at this point you do not wish for any formal action to be taken. Perhaps even have him/her guarantee you confidence before you tell him the details. caveat: @JonCuster informs us in a comment, that in some states in the world (e.g. in the USA) the program head would be legally obligated to report the case. If that's true where you live, then it's not clear what s/he would actually do. But see my next suggestion...

  2. Consider consulting your your student union first - especially if you have department-level or cohort-level representation whom you know personally. It may help if they told your Professor to stop behaving the way he does. Again, you can do this informally; and the student union is not legally required to report.

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    There may not be an option for the program head to treat it informally. Knowing it is likely that staff are committing harassment must be reported. – Jon Custer Aug 30 at 19:01
  • @JonCuster: The program head doesn't officially know anything. But... I'll rephrase. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Aug 30 at 19:30
  • I'll clarify, and you can see if you need to rephrase. I manage a research group at a US national lab. If any staff person, mine or somebody else's, came into my office and I heard about such behavior, I am legally bound to report it even if they request it be kept quiet. Just the way it is. Once a manager is informed, it is presumed that the company is informed, and not acting puts the company in jeopardy. – Jon Custer Aug 30 at 19:36
  • @JonCuster: Ok, see edit. However, in that case, the department head would need to tell OP that rather than agree to keep it in confidence. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Aug 30 at 19:40
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    Yeah, but usually the issue comes out, and then the request to keep it confident, which just can't happen at that point. It is something I tell all my new people (and remind those who have been around) - I just am not allowed to keep quiet about stuff, so if they want it kept quiet, here is who to go to (we do have anonymous reporting as well). – Jon Custer Aug 30 at 19:51
-1

Write down a timeline. A very detailed timeline. Bring it to the dean. Include quotes. If you want, you can bring a few people from class who have stood witness to this as backup, or perhaps just a list of a few names of students that are available for contact if there are questions from the administration.

Do not pursue this in court. But you must pursue this with the school. The behaviour damages their ability to deliver quality education and it is in everyone's interests to ensure that the situation gets resolved properly.

  • going to the dean without talking to him upfront first? She didn't even mention that she directly told him to stop. That should be the first thing to do. – Tomas Aug 30 at 14:20
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    @Tomas It's in the question: "I've told him it doesn't matter if I'm married or not but he laughed at me. I outright told him to stop multiple times and he didn't listen." – user3067860 Aug 30 at 14:21
  • @user3067860 OK I missed that, thanks! – Tomas Aug 30 at 14:31
  • Although I agree that the behavior of the professor is in appropriate I think these kind of extremely confrontational answers may put the OP in professional danger. We do not know even which country this is happening in. – Dilworth Aug 30 at 17:16
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    @Dilworth: This question has the "united-states" tag (and it's been there in every revision). – Daniel R. Collins Aug 30 at 19:00
-1

I'm an apologist of proportionality of measures. Start with simpler, less formal measures, and carry on from there. If need be, be more assertive as each measure fails.

Talk to him, but not in front of a whole class. For example, it can in a relatively empty hall of a building of a campus, or as he is leaving a class room. There must be people, if possible, but not too many. Don't isolate yourself when meeting him, and don't reprimand him in front of a crowd. This will increase the chances of attaining your goal, without much mess like some formal procedure. Go to you teacher and tell him what you're feeling when he makes those jokes about you. Tell him that you're being serious and you would like him to stop.

If he doesn't comply, and continues to behave in the same manner, then just proceed as it's described in some other answer to this question.

Without trying to the simpler measures first, and going head first with a timeline and a 'diary' of your interactions with him, you may come as somewhat 'neurotic', specially if they find out you're on the spectrum, and completely disregard your complaint.

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    Downvoted because it's right in the OP: "I've told him it doesn't matter if I'm married or not but he laughed at me. I outright told him to stop multiple times and he didn't listen." – user3067860 Aug 30 at 14:20
  • +1 for "I'm an apologist of proportionality of measures." – Dilworth Aug 30 at 17:17
  • Agree with your general approach, but @user3067860 is right - another small step of escalation is already in order. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Aug 30 at 18:22
-2

Well - the way he was bringing up the husband topic - this is what we guys do if we are interested in a woman and want to figure out the situation. So chances are he wanted to set up the man to woman frame. Or, maybe he just wanted to be more "familial" (or how would you say that in English).

I just said "no" and kept staring at him. I'm very socially awkward.

Well, he was awkward. You felt awkwardness that he created and he probably didn't feel it. Do not blame yourself. It was a challenge for you and new situation. You didn't know how to deal with this, but now you have to face it. It is obviously a challenge, but also an opportunity to learn how set up your healthy boundaries! :-)

The best and most simple way is to tell him upfront, that you don't feel comfortable him addressing your personal life. It's not easy, I know, but here is the opportunity for yourself to learn to establish healthy boundaries. Here you have to go through the "awkwardness" feeling you mention, but it should be done before you involve any other people.

I commend you for not wanting to persecute him. For me as a European (thanks God!) it's ridiculous that people in America would persecute/sue each other without even having honest talk with each other first; it's also scary how many things can be labeled as "harrasment" and how people can be destroyed with it. I'm honestly glad the culture here in Europe is much different. Anyways, express to him the clear, straight and direct NO to what he's doing, repeat it if necessary and if the situation doesn't improve, then I would think of involving other people.

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    Based on the OP's statement I outright told him to stop multiple times and he didn't listen - I think its established that this is a "non-improving situation" (so you may want to add who these other people who need to get involved are) – LinkBerest Aug 30 at 14:46
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    When a professor is "interested in a woman" and that woman is one of his students, the ethical and professional thing for him to do about that interest is NOTHING AT ALL. This is a classroom, not a dating agency. – Geoffrey Brent Aug 30 at 23:42
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    Also, she did have "honest talk" with him first. Persisting in that behaviour after she's told him it's welcome absolutely is harassment. – Geoffrey Brent Aug 30 at 23:43
-9

It’s true that in some universities, conservatives are persecuted, but I am still inclined to say “report it.” However, if you are reluctant, perhaps there is another “conservative” professor you could trust to advise you?

Unfortunately, there is the risk that your professor will retaliate with a bad grade—or even do so because you are female (since he apparently has rather strange attitudes about women).

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    Political affiliation is completely irrelevant. The behaviour is unprofessional, discriminatory and rude. Period. – Lightness Races with Monica Aug 30 at 14:26
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    It’s not irrelevant in one of those (hopefully few) where free speech only applies to those sufficiently far into the “correct” political viewpoint. But yes, the behavior is all three of those adjectives. – WGroleau Aug 30 at 14:28
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    It has nothing to do with "free speech" either. – Lightness Races with Monica Aug 30 at 14:44
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    It does in those places where ANY excuse is pounced on if it allows the “punishment” of those that have the “wrong” world-view. (And such places exist on both ends of the political spectrum.). OP apparently believe that her university is such a place. – WGroleau Aug 30 at 14:48
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    @WGroleau harassment is not protected speech & discrimination speech (within the context of an employee of a Public University) may also not be protected speech and, if it was, would certainly fall under some regulation within the institution which deems it "not-protected" within the terms of employment. – LinkBerest Aug 30 at 14:49

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