As a postdoc and junior faculty member I was involved in mentoring and training a PhD student who went on to a faculty position. I have now heard that the person I trained has been investigated and suspended by their university for harassing students.

Looking back I cannot think of anything that I did whilst mentoring and training to encourage this behaviour. However, neither can I think of anything I did to discourage it. I also can't immediately think of what I'm doing now, with current graduate students, to discourage this behaviour in the future.

What are good strategies for faculty mentoring and supervising students to reduce the chance of training a future harasser?

EDIT: Thanks for the answers so far. However, none have added specific strategies that I feel I could act on. As an example of what I'm looking for:

When discussing conferences that students may attend, I would talk with them about

  • How good/useful the list of invited speakers and sessions looks;
  • What the expected participants are like, and whether they'd be useful for their future network (is this a good/useful community to engage with);
  • Whether it fits within their travel budget;
  • What opportunities there are to present talks or posters;
  • How useful associated training activities may be;
  • Whether they'd be able to combine the conference with visits to nearby groups that may be useful;
  • How it fits around other commitments in their calendar.

I am now thinking of extending this to include

  • Discussions of the meeting's Code of Conduct: why having one is good, violating it is bad, and my expectation that they should follow a suitable Code of Conduct even if the meeting doesn't officially have one;
  • Noting the balance and diversity of speakers (I've been doing this more anyway, but making it more explicit that this is good, and that students should interact professionally with all participants), and discussing in problematic cases if lack of diversity at a meeting indicates other problems in the community around that meeting;
  • Emphasizing that students should pay attention when meeting participants talk about "personalities" in the field; that this information should be respected, listened to, and considered carefully; and that they should think about how to avoid causing the sort of problems that others discuss.

I need to consider the points that @Fomite and @D. Salo bring up, particularly how to implement a group Code of Conduct that works with, rather than at cross-purposes to, existing university policies. I'm looking for detailed ideas that I can use in other frequent interactions with students.

Finally, I refuse to believe that there's little more that can be done other than setting a good example. We continually demand improvement in our research and our teaching: in these parts of our professional lives we know that concrete, incremental steps show real gains. Building and training a community of professional researchers that act professionally in personal interactions is also part of our jobs. I don't expect perfection, but I'm extremely angry that this has happened, so I do expect improvement of myself, and I think the field should too.

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    Are you talking about sexual harassment or some other kind of harassment?
    – Kimball
    Oct 10, 2015 at 22:44
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    This should be taught in required social science general education courses in undergrad. Or earlier. Oct 11, 2015 at 2:06
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    I don't want to talk about the type of harassment: I want the onus to be on changing my actions.
    – Ian
    Oct 11, 2015 at 8:58
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: I'm not sure whether you're saying that potential harassers should be taught not to do this as UGs, or potential trainers should be taught these skills as UGs. I'm guessing the former (very few UGs become trainers, so it's wasted). I would say: yes, this should be taught as early as possible. But good/bad behaviour needs continuous positive/negative reinforcement. If students see bad behaviour rewarded, or not punished, in a "real" research environment, then early training won't have the necessary results.
    – Ian
    Oct 11, 2015 at 14:01
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    I may be in the minority here, but I had to read this question a few times to make any sense out of it. Although you mentioned already that you don't want to, I suggest clarifying what type of harassment you are most concerned with.
    – Mad Jack
    Oct 11, 2015 at 15:07

5 Answers 5


This might prove futile, in my eyes. If you mandate something like sensitivity training, say, you will teach those naturally well-behaved little, and those who carry the germ of future mis-behavior to hide it. If you advise students from different cultures, on the other hand, it might help them to learn what is appropriate in yours. So in that case it might be a good idea as some mis-behavior results merely from different cultural norms (a kind and friendly Asian co-student shared a racist joke via email with all my school - because he didn't recognize it for what it was). For anything happening while working with you, you should make it explicitly known that you encourage your students and postdocs to talk to you should one of them feel that they were treated inappropriately by another; that you always have an open door.

Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher emperor devoted to service and tolerance; his son Commodus arguably the most wicked Roman emperor in the history of the Roman Empire. You try to set a good example, but that is probably all you can do. Don't beat yourself up over what happened.

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    The OP didn't suggest a "mandate" for "sensitivity training."
    – user1482
    Oct 11, 2015 at 2:34
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    @BenCrowell: That's very astute, Ben. Thanks for pointing that out. The implied meaning (note also it is followed by ", say,") is that mandating sensitivity training or taking similar actions would be one obvious way to attempt to deal with the question; it is, after all, what industry's answer is for similar issues.. Oct 11, 2015 at 5:11
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    @Ian: I meant that more in general terms. The mere fact that you asked this question makes me believe that you are unlikely to even have to change anything in your behavior. What happened, didn't happen as you failed in some way, or need major character adjustments; it happened because one of your students was probably going to do whatever (s)he did no matter what you would have changed. I might of course be wrong - all I know is this question. But i'm serious when I say that I think that only people who likely need no or few changes would ask this. Oct 11, 2015 at 10:07
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    @Ian: I don't mean to be evasive here, but as a person clearly self-critical and introspective (or why ask here?), if there were anything concrete that you'd reproach yourself for, you'd probably already be busy addressing it. And I believe that people in their late 20s or 30s are probably too far set in their ways for you, no matter what good intention, to change those who would need changing. What I meant is "live a good life", no matter how Hippie that sounds; but you probably already do, while feeling guilty for something you shouldn't. Not all can be controlled, Ian. Oct 11, 2015 at 10:16
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    I will agree with self-critical and introspective. I will agree that not everything can be controlled. I will not, and cannot, agree that recognizing that a problem exists is sufficient, and that I cannot expect to improve.
    – Ian
    Oct 11, 2015 at 13:19

Echoing some of the other comments, I think the key is to create an environment where it's clear that kind of behavior isn't acceptable, and to act in a way where students and trainees can pattern off you. This will of course not stop everything, but they represent positive steps. Some examples:

  • Consciously treat staff and students with respect - it doesn't have to be cloying, but there's no reason to treat department admins, lab techs, IT people etc. as anything other than professionals. Similarly, treat all students with respect.
  • Be conscious about your implicit biases. Sit down and think about your students, staff, colleagues, etc. Do women tend to get steered more toward "soft skills" tasks? Do things tend to automatically go the way of the person who spoke first or most? Are you inviting speakers such that students in your department can see "someone like them" thriving in the field?
  • Make it clear that harassment doesn't fly with you. Don't dismiss poor behavior because someone is brilliant, or because "Everyone knows theoreticians don't have any social skills" or that's just how things are. One of the problems with harassment in academia is the feeling that one can get away with it - that the environment protects and supports those who prey on those who are less powerful.
  • Show that you care for victims. If a harassment incident comes forward, show concerns for the victims, not how this is going to impact the perpetrator's career. Similarly, if someone comes to you with their concerns, take them seriously.

Hope Jahren has some excellent essays on the subject.


There was one time when a small boy at church, to my surprise, gave me two quarters. Part of my immediate thought was, "Time for a lesson in manners!" so I wrote a good, old-fashioned USPS letter thanking him and saying, "Thank you for the quarters. They came in handy." This is not a lesson in manners in the usual sense of "dressing someone down for atrocious manners"—far from it— but showing by example a kind of behavior he can imitate, and perhaps putting it on his radar that this is an example of a kind of thing people can do.

The gesture represented in my letter may have had more force than telling him a dozen times that he should say "Thank you" when someone treats him kindly.

Harassment is disrespect. The biggest thing you can do to influence your students is to provide a model of respect for each person you deal with, specifically including people low on the totem pole.

Two other comments:

  1. Support staff are not furniture. There is no obligation to become best friends, but it is good practice to say "Thank you" to anyone who helps you, particularly support staff, and it takes a scant second to say "Hi" and smile or wave when passing e.g. a front desk, and perhaps include them among the people whose names you learn. You might, if there's a convenient or teachable moment, invite others to join you in recognizing that support staff are not furniture. This may influence people a fortiori to see harassment as wrong.
  2. It is known to have happened that a professor at an MBA program has placed on the last question of a final exam, "What is the name of the person who empties the trash on your floor of the dorm?"
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    One would hope the professor from item 2 was informed enough about where the students live and whether there is someone to empty the trash at all. Otherwise, nice idea :) Oct 10, 2015 at 22:45
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    Good answer, but the opening anecdote confuses me. You didn't rebuke him, the implication I'm getting being that you showed forgiveness where someone mean would not have, but what did he do? Is giving someone two quarters a euphemism for something or does it have some significance/symbolism I'm out of the loop about? Is it something to do with the offering plate? I cannot figure out. Oct 11, 2015 at 3:13
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    @Vandermonde I think Jonathan meant to say that it is a lesson in manners by example (the lesson being you should say thank you and the example being Jonathans letter) instead of the more common lesson in manners by rebuke (scolding someone after they did something that is considered bad manners), which doesn't apply in this case because the boy did nothing wrong. Oct 11, 2015 at 11:16
  • @Vandermonde My apologies for the confusion; I meant something along the lines of Sumyrda's clarification, that "lesson in manners" didn't have the usual sense of "corrective for atrocious manners." Oct 11, 2015 at 19:01
  • Oh! No wonder; it's much more sensible now. Actually, that's a neat idea to thank someone for what one (and often they themselves too) would have otherwise considered trivial or mundane instead of keeping the same thought in one's head and moving on a moment later. I'll try it next time. Oct 12, 2015 at 3:33

I'm very sorry you're dealing with this. For what it's worth, you didn't "train" this harasser to harass.

The activity around conference codes of conduct and similar advances in IT environments suggests that one key to building a healthy environment is making entirely clear that harassment of any kind (and be specific about kinds!) will not be tolerated, and being fully prepared to back that up with action.

Whatever rules, policy, or similar documentation you have for your lab, consider adding a code of conduct to it. Bone up on your institution's harassment policies and the reporting chain for non-academic misconduct, so that if something happens you're not caught slackjawed wondering what to do. Make clear that you consider a harassment claim to be serious business, and that you will back up victims in any proceedings they see fit to start. (You don't want to promise you will instigate proceedings, because that decision would ideally be left to the person harassed. You can promise to stand behind whatever that person decides.)

The salutary effects are at least two: potential harassers will be warned away, and if (heaven forbid) an incident should happen, you'll have a clear plan to deal with it.


I don't think anything you said or could have said, would have changed the outcome of what was set in stone long ago. Although I do not have a PhD, a doctorate, nor any other type of college degree. What I do have is compassion for others & an abundance of common sense. And the reason for it, I believe , is because over time it was bread into me by my parents, my family and the type of surroundings I was exposed to during my adolescent time of life. Harassing is just another word for bullying. And when someone harasses or bully's someone , it's all about controlling someone else.

What I have seen in the world during my life , is that if you take a group of people who have all been bullied in some way during their life time , you won't see the whole group become compassion for others with the attitude that they would never do that to someone because they know what it's like to be on the receiving end of it. I can tell you for a fact, that there are people who are put in positions of control ( like police officers) who were bullied when they were younger, like in Jr high & high school, who now have the position of power. The man or woman at work who was promoted, and now can get back at the certain person they didn't like in the office who always gave them the shit jobs. Because there are some people that when bullied long enough, there basically becomes a peak that they reach. And when they finally reach that pointed plateau and have had enough of it, they now figure , OK now it's my turn. I have the position to do it now.
So I believe this type of behavior can only come from how you were raised and/or the type of environment you are or were exposed to in your life. I think if you had a mother or father , a few school teachers or even a neighborhood bully that you were always on the offensive with while growing up, it becomes part the adult behavior for some people to be that of "the controller" instead of being controlled. For some, there is that certain thing inside a person that just won't let anyone or anything break through , so you can talk your head off till doomsday , their attitude on life won't change.

Just my opinion

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