Sunday, February 28, 2010

How to Handle Sexual Harassment by a Subordinate

A reader wrote in a few weeks ago about a problem with an undergraduate assistant, sent as a comment on an older post. I am reproducing her statement here in case anyone would like to suggest a response or relate a similar experience.

"Hi, I was recently referred to this blog by a friend. I realize this is an older post, but I was hoping that someone might have some good advice. I am a woman PhD student and my research is in remote areas. I am a pretty small woman often mistaken for being a bit younger than I am and I have a pretty causal personality. Due to funding, I am only able to hire one field assistant and last year it was an undergraduate male. I wanted to have a relaxed work environment especially as we were camping. Unfortunately, my assistant began making inappropriate comments such as "you're a such a cute little boss" when I would outline his tasks. I found this pretty surprising (and inappropriate) and I wasn't sure what to do. I believe I indicated that I found this to be out of line, but such comments still occurred sometimes. This year, the top candidate for my technician position is again an undergraduate male. I was hoping someone might have advice about how to set the correct tone from the beginning and how to handle any comments over the line. While I prefer to be pretty casual and relaxed, I believe that I should be a little more formal this time?" Anonymous

Here's my take on this type of situation.

In some cases where subordinates overstep their roles and behave inappropriately (making sexist remarks, challenging their superior's authority, undermining the boss by making disparaging remarks to other employees, etc.), the problem may arise from the subordinate's problem with authority. It may also be inadvertently encouraged by the boss who tries to be "friends" with the employee. The worst case scenario is a combination of the two.

The potential employee with authority problems may be difficult to spot during interviews, but sometimes they might drop some clues in response to carefully crafted questions. You have two opportunities to deal with this type of person:

1. During the interview and hiring process, you can eliminate those candidates that do not appear to fit with the work situation (taking orders from a superior or working with a woman) and

2. On the first day of the job when their duties are explained. In the case of fieldwork in a remote setting, you can explain that because of safety and various other issues that your instructions must be followed. Be clear that any inappropriate behavior or failure to follow directions will result in their being sent home immediately. I take this approach with all undergraduate and graduate students and field assistants who accompany me on field trips or in field courses. Some PIs or field course instructors write out rules of conduct and safety precautions, which the student must sign in order to participate. You must follow through with the stated consequences. This can be inconvenient if it means making arrangements for their transport or cancellation of the trip. However, the consequences of ignoring warning signs can be much worse, especially if you are a lone female with a threatening male assistant.

The other situation involves the attempt to have a friendly, less formal relationship with subordinates. People usually have strong feelings about this-both for and against informal relationships. I personally think it's a mistake to set up a less than professional relationship with subordinates. The reason is that you cannot be truly friends with someone who is not your equal, and as a supervisor you have power over that other person no matter how friendly you are. By encouraging an informal relationship, a supervisor may eventually have serious behavioral issues to deal with in the future, but also puts the subordinate in a precarious and unfair situation. Your attempt at friendliness or informality may invite inappropriate behavior if the subordinate misinterprets your intentions. It's particularly important for females to consider the consequences of establishing an informal relationship with subordinates. It can be difficult enough establishing one's authority without inviting unwanted challenges from those who might take advantage of your good nature and desire to have a relaxed work environment.

Can you have enjoyable interactions with your research group and still retain a formal, professional relationship? Yes, definitely. I joke around with my group and we discuss general
topics of interest, have group lunches, etc.  However, I maintain a professional distance and socialize with my own peer group. 

Graduate students, post-docs, and technicians may have particular difficulty establishing authority over undergraduates or others because they are often not perceived as having any real power. If someone is helping you with your project and is being paid for their time, then you should speak up immediately if they fail to show respect for your position. You have to judge just how to react based on what they do or say.

Comments of a sexually harassing nature should be dealt with immediately and forcefully--not doing so can be a mistake if things escalate and you have to report it later.  There is no excuse for that type of behavior, especially if it continues after the harasser is warned.  The law is based on the victim's perception, not the harasser's.  So if you perceive a co-worker's or subordinate's actions as being threatening, then you are justified in reporting it.  If anyone tries to discourage you from reporting harassment, this is illegal and also grounds for complaint.  The US Equal Opportunity Employment office has useful information and guidance.

The situation described by "Anonymous" would not normally be terribly threatening (in an office or lab), but the remote field setting puts a different slant on things.  I doubt he realized that his comments, in combination with the remote setting actually may have created an intimidating/hostile environment, which meets the definition of sexual harassment.  The correct way to approach such a situation is to first tell him that his comments are inappropriate and upsetting to you.  If they continue, then this is a warning that this person does not view you as being in control, and it might be best to cancel or cut the trip short (first calling your supervisor to let him/her know what's going).  In the future, projecting a more authoritative, professional attitude (at least initially until you get to know your assistant better) might help in preventing a similar situation.

If anyone has had a similar experience and would like to tell how they handled it or what you think should be done in such a situation, please comment.

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