How to identify and prevent harassment?

Site: HYY moodle
Course: Equality in organisational activities
Book: How to identify and prevent harassment?
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Date: Monday, 22 April 2024, 5:28 PM

1. Identifying harassment

The first step towards taking action against harassment is for organisations to identify it. Only after this has been done is it possible to reflect on the organisation’s own practices related to the prevention of harassment and the resolution of possible harassment cases.

In the activities of student organisations and in this guide, harassment refers to all kinds of inappropriate and unwanted behaviour. Harassment can take different forms, such as expressions, comments, messages, gestures and touching. Violations of an organisation’s principles of safer space may also be considered to constitute harassment.

In legislation, harassment is defined as infringing the dignity of a person in such a way that it creates a degrading or intimidating atmosphere towards another person. Harassment may be related to characteristics including gender, age, ethnic or national origin, nationality, language, religion, belief, opinion, political activity, family relations, disability, health and sexual orientation. Harassment is a form of discrimination and may constitute a crime. Racist jokes and name-calling aimed at a student who belongs to a sexual minority are examples of harassment.

There are different norms and power structures operating behind harassment. These structures are often maintained unconsciously – they are connected to the ways of behaviour, speaking and thought that are considered acceptable in a certain culture. The structures determine who has the power to define acceptable behaviour and the kind of behaviour that is considered appropriate in different situations. The consequences of the way in which power is distributed in communities include the more frequent and systematic disparagement of certain kinds of experiences, such as those of women and minorities, compared to others. This leads to harassment not being taken seriously. The rules of behaviour maintained by various norms and structures can change when they are questioned and made visible. The change can also lead to conflict when privileges become visible and are questioned.

It may be difficult for the target of harassment to take action against it for various reasons. For instance, everyone who experiences harassment does not necessarily recognise the behaviour they encounter as harassment, perhaps only developing an understanding of the situation later. Even if the person does not immediately identify the behaviour as harassment, this does not mean that harassment has not occurred. Taking action against harassment also requires the target of harassment to have courage and resources. If they encounter harassment on a daily basis, they may not have the strength to take action against or comment on each instance of inappropriate behaviour they encounter. For this reason, too, it is important for the person experiencing harassment to receive support and for people involved in organisations to know how to act in harassment situations.

2. Identifying discrimination

Discrimination refers to treating an individual worse than other people because of one or several personal characteristics. These characteristics include gender, age, ethnic or national origin, nationality, language, religion, belief, opinion, disability, health and sexual orientation. In Finland, discrimination is prohibited by the Constitution and the Non-Discrimination Act, for instance. However, please note that placing people into different positions based on a personal characteristic does not always constitute discrimination. Similarly, all inappropriate treatment is not necessarily discrimination. More information on identifying discrimination is available on the website of the non-discrimination ombudsman.

3. Identifying bullying

Bullying refers to activity in which one or several people repeatedly insult, harm or discriminate against someone in a way that prevents them from influencing the situation. Bullying always involves different positions of power – it is not a conflict between two parties in equal positions. The bullied person is at a disadvantage and cannot defend themselves against the bully or bullies.

Examples of bullying include baseless criticism, disparagement and humiliation of another person as well as belittling their skills and achievements. Insulting, name-calling and threatening as well as any name-calling or discrimination aimed at personal characteristics are also forms of bullying. Bullying can further take the form of damaging another person’s social relationships and social exclusion. Physical bullying is rarer in higher education institutions than in comprehensive school, for instance, but it does occur too.

Bullying may occur both between students and between students and personnel. Students being bullied by staff members is less frequent than students being bullied by other students. According to the Finnish Student Health Survey (2021), 7% of students have experienced bullying by another student, whereas 5% have experienced bullying by staff members.

You should remember that all disagreements and conflicts between people do not automatically constitute instances of harassment or bullying. However, even if a situation is not considered harassment or bullying, this does not mean that it could not cause distress among the participants or that the organisation should not process the case.

4. Characteristics of harassment in organisational activities

Organisational activities are unique in nature, and certain characteristics typical of organisational activities:

  • Peer culture, voluntary nature, part-time nature, leisure time
    • Responsibilities are shared with volunteers
  • Project nature, fixed terms
    • There are no fixed communities or groups involved in the activities
  • Hobby nature
    • The activities may include games, camps or politics
  • Diverse spheres of operation
    • Employees, persons of trust, volunteers and target groups are all mixed up
  • Diverse forms of contact
    • Social media, digital communities
  • Partying

Due to these distinctive features of organisational activities, certain characteristics are also emphasised in harassment situations. The following are among the issues identified in student organisations:

  • Restricted community
    • The harassers are known, but no one knows how to take action against their behaviour
    • People find it difficult to take action against the inappropriate behaviour of their friends and acquaintances
    • Slander and rumours spread effectively
  • Conversational norms
    • Insensitive ways of talking and racy jokes
    • Touching and commenting veiled in familiarity
  • Party culture
    • The use of intoxicants and harassment done while drunk
    • Inappropriate sitsi songs and heckling at academic dinner parties

5. How can harassment be prevented?

The best way to prevent harassment, discrimination and bullying is to develop the organisation’s culture. In an open culture that is respectful of diversity, each member can participate in the activities as themselves. There are many ways to create this kind of an atmosphere.

The organisation can establish various operating methods and practices that support equality. The following are examples of these kinds of practices:

  • Establishing a position for a person in charge of equality in the organisation
  • Creating an equality plan
  • Drafting principles of safer space
  • Ensuring event safety

You need to regularly communicate about any action you have taken and ground rules you have created to all members of the organisation. You should also get the members to commit themselves to the shared equality action. Once your members understand the purpose of the activities and have got to participate in the process, you will be able to create a more permanent change in your operating culture. One-sided commands rarely manage to engage the entire community.

In addition to shared ground rules, organisations should pay attention to group formation and encourage their members to behave courteously. In organisational activities, you need to ensure that everyone is included in the activities equally. The responsibility for this lies especially with the organisation’s officials and board. Taking others into account is not difficult – it simply means greeting and thanking everyone and making sure they are included. For instance, if someone is sitting alone or keeping quiet for a long time, you can ask for their opinion or for them to take part in some activity.

How can an organisation’s internal processes help prevent harassment?

To facilitate the work of an organisation’s board and others involved in it, we recommend creating shared ground rules and operating methods that everyone agrees to follow. This clarifies the responsibilities of different people in the organisation and makes conflicts less likely. The operating methods can deal with some of the following questions, for instance:

  • How do you work in the organisation?
    • What are the organisation’s operating methods?
    • What are the organisation’s meeting practices?
    • What kind of areas of responsibility does the organisation have and how is work distributed among the people involved in it?
  • How do you communicate in the organisation?
    • When should people involved in the organisation be reachable?
    • When should they respond to messages?
    • By when should people involved in the organisation let others know that they will be absent or unable to attend?
  • How do you collect feedback in the organisation?
    • How and where do you collect the feedback?
    • How is the feedback processed?
    • How do you acquire feedback from members, the board and others involved in the organisation?

It is also important to set up a separate process for the organisation on how to deal with harassment situations and other inappropriate behaviour. Organisations often stress that they have zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination in their activities. However, proclaiming this means nothing in itself if there are not any concrete measures to support it. It is important for all members of the organisation to know how to take action against harassment and how they can report something they witness or experience. For this reason, the organisation must also have clear procedures on how to process such situations. You can read more on how to process the cases and on the processes themselves from the section Resolving harassment cases in organisations in this guide.