How to act in harassment situations

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Course: Equality in organisational activities
Book: How to act in harassment situations
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Date: Tuesday, 23 April 2024, 8:09 AM


In this chapter, we will deal with harassment cases and present some instructions on how to process the situations. We will first go through instructions for those who have experienced harassment and for those accused of harassment. After this, we will explain how organisations can process harassment situations.

1. Instructions for those who have experienced harassment

  1. Tell the person behaving inappropriately that their behaviour is inappropriate. Tell them that you do not accept their behaviour and ask them to stop. If you cannot or dare not approach the harasser yourself, ask a friend, someone involved in the organisation or someone else to point this out to the person. The harasser may simply not understand that they are behaving in an offensive manner.
  2. If you wish, you can leave the situation. You have no obligation to continue talking with the harasser. However, do not remain alone with your experience! You can, for instance, contact someone involved in the organisation or a harassment contact person when you are ready for it.
  3. If the harassment continues, write down what happened, when the situation occurred, who were present and what was said. Save any possible emails and messages, too, as this will make it easier to process the matter later.
  4. Tell someone about the inappropriate behaviour:
    • If another student behaves inappropriately in a teaching situation, contact the teacher responsible for the course or some other member of the University staff.
    • If the harassment takes place in a student organisation, you should primarily contact the people involved in the organisation or, if needed, HYY’s harassment contact persons.
    • If you suspect a crime, always contact the police. If you are not sure whether what happened constitutes a crime, you can contact Victim Support Finland.
  5. Remember to look after your own wellbeing. If you want to discuss the incident with someone, you can also contact the FSHS’s services or some other provider of help. You can seek help from the party you feel is the most natural for yourself.

2. Instructions for those accused of harassment

  1. If you are told that you are behaving inappropriately, stop the unwanted behaviour. Even if you believe that your behaviour has been appropriate, respect the other person’s experience and boundaries.
  2. Try to understand the other party’s perspective and the aspect of your behaviour that was considered inappropriate. Apologise.
  3. If the situation is investigated further, be constructive. It is good to resolve the situation as soon as possible to put an end to the unwanted behaviour and avoid other problems.
  4. You have the right to be heard and present your own view of the situation. It is possible that the other person feels your behaviour was harassment even if it factually was not. The situation must be investigated objectively and neutrally in an atmosphere where an accusation does not automatically make anyone guilty.
  5. Remember that harassment as defined in legislation constitutes discrimination. If your behaviour meets the criteria for harassment, you may have to answer for your actions in court or pay damages to the person you harassed.
  6. Remember to look after your own wellbeing. If you want want to discuss the incident with someone, you can also contact the FSHS’s services or some other provider of help. You can seek help from the party you feel is the most natural for yourself.

3. Processing harassment cases in organisations

Bullying and harassment are a problem for the entire organisation and community, as the prejudices and power relations present in our society can also be seen in organisational activities. Individuals are not responsible for the discrimination or harassment they face. Even though all conflicts do not constitute bullying or harassment, any conflicts between the members of an organisation may still negatively affect the organisation’s operation. When an organisation already has principles and an action plan ready for when it needs to take action against harassment, it is easier for the people involved in the organisation to take action when such a situation arises. This is also a step towards better and more inclusive organisational activities. In the following sections, we will describe certain measures and processes organisations can use when planning their own activities.

3.1. Person processing harassment situations

First, the organisation needs to choose who processes reports of harassment and resolves any cases that occur. In many organisations operating under HYY, the cases are processed by either a person in charge of equality or a harassment contact person. The line between the two roles may be difficult to pinpoint, but the roles are meant to be different. A person in charge of equality is responsible for the promotion of equality in the organisation on a general level, and their duties may include resolving harassment cases. On the other hand, a harassment contact person’s main duty is to deal with harassment cases. They provide advice and support to students who encounter harassment, discrimination, bullying or any other kind of inappropriate treatment.

In addition to this, it is a good idea for organisations to discuss in advance who will process any potential reports on the person dealing with harassment cases or a member of the board. The chair of the board is one option for the person to take on such cases.

Operating principles for the activities

Whether the organisation has a person in charge of equality or a harassment contact person, it must create a clear framework and instructions for the activities. Anyone contacting the person should also be informed of the principles. To provide an example, here are the operating principles of HYY’s harassment contact persons:

  • The situation is first clarified through discussion:
    • The harassment contact person tries to support the person who has experienced harassment by talking to them and, depending on what the person who contacted the harassment contact person wants, begins work on resolving the situation. It is important to be understanding towards the person who reported the harassment. Even if the situation does not constitute harassment, the experience may have been difficult for the person.
    • If the situation is investigated, the harassment contact person may contact the other party and help facilitate a discussion between the parties.
    • The harassment contact person listens to both parties and tries to support them with finding a resolution but does not resolve the situation for them.
  • The harassment contact person is impartial:
    • The harassment contact person is a neutral party in the conflict and does not take anyone’s side. Even though it is important to show empathy towards the person who experienced harassment, the other party should not be judged, and their perspective needs to be heard, too.
  • The harassment contact person acts in strict confidence:
    • Information on any contacts, reports or investigation processes are generally not shared with external parties, and no written documentation is stored. If investigating the matter requires the contact person to consult external parties or bring in other people, they must inform the concerned parties of this and seek their permission for it.
  • The harassment contact person does not hand out sanctions:
    • The person dealing with harassment situations does not act as a judge or look for the guilty party. The harassment contact person is not an authority figure who decides whether harassment has occurred or not. If the person accused of harassment has, for instance, broken an organisation’s rules or principles of safer space in such a way that the organisation wants to hand out sanctions for it, the party handing out the sanctions is the board of the organisation. In cases where there is suspicion of a crime having been committed, the relevant party is immediately advised to contact the police or Victim Support Finland.
  • All situations cannot be resolved:
    • Experiences with harassment are never identical, and there are no rules that apply to all cases. It is not always possible to find a resolution that satisfies the person reporting the harassment. This does not mean that the harassment contact person has failed in their duty. Simply talking with the person who experienced harassment may be enough to improve their wellbeing.
    • It is not advisable to even try to resolve all cases on the organisation’s behalf. If two people have fallen out for reasons not related to the organisation’s activities, they should be encouraged to resolve the matter themselves and behave courteously towards each other in the organisation’s activities.
  • You do not have to remain alone in difficult situations:
    • If needed, the harassment contact person may direct the parties towards other providers of help and consult the harassment contact persons of the University or the Student Union, for instance. It is important that the harassment contact person looks after their own wellbeing and coping, too.

Harassment encountered by minorities

People involved in organisations will sometimes encounter situations featuring harassment of a racist or sexist nature, for instance. The person experiencing the harassment may be used to the behaviour and feel like reporting it will not change anything. They also might not consider reporting the harassment safe if there is any chance for their experience being downplayed or not believed. This may happen in situations in which the person dealing with the situation does not belong to a minority group and is thus unaware of what it is like to experience racist harassment, for instance.

The person dealing with the situation must be extremely sensitive and aware of their own privileges. The harassment contact person may not personally know what kind of harassment women or minorities face. The experience of the person reporting the harassment should never be questioned, downplayed or explained away. Instead, the contact person should support the person reporting the harassment and strive to act according to their wishes when taking any further measures.

Harassment situations may be especially stressful to people who belong to minority groups due to minority stress. Minority stress refers to the mental strain caused by discrimination or the fear thereof. Treating the person who has encountered harassment empathetically and processing the harassment situation appropriately may have a positive effect on the person’s wellbeing.

The skill of listening

The person dealing with harassment situations needs good interaction skills and the ability to listen to others. They must treat the people contacting them empathetically and show that they are there for them. Listening is a skill that can be developed. Here are some tips to help you with active listening:

  • Pay attention to word choices and gestures. Actively listen to the other person and show them you are doing so by responding with short utterances and looking them in the eye, for instance.
  • Be empathetic, thank the other person for stating their perspective and encourage them to do so.
  • Do not interrupt – focus on listening to the other person.
  • Do not doubt or judge the other person. Even if you do not consider the situation to constitute harassment or inappropriate behaviour, respect their experience. Do not downplay or question their experience.
  • Accept the feelings and choices of the other person. Trust in their ability to assess the situation for themselves.
  • Tolerate silence and do not rush in to fill it. Let the other person reflect on matters in peace and answer at their own pace.
  • If needed, ask the person to elaborate and make sure that you have correctly understood what they have said.

Further reading: Acting as a participant and listener in a discussion.

3.2. How to deal with a person who has experienced harassment

  1. If you see or hear harassment or inappropriate behaviour, try to put a stop to the situation. You can, for instance, cut in, join the conversation or question any inappropriate comments. The important thing is to somehow put an end to the situation. It takes real courage to take action against harassment when it is taking place.
    • It is not always entirely clear whether what is happening constitutes harassment or bullying. If you are unsure about it, just join the conversation and ask whether everything is ok.
    Support and listen to the person who has experienced harassment. Ask them what kind of help they need and how they would like you to act in the situation.
    • We recommend taking the person to the side so that you can discuss matters privately.
    • Sometimes, the person does not want to start resolving the situation immediately, or this is not advisable due to them being upset or intoxicated, for instance. Make sure that the person is not left alone. Together with them, agree on a time when you will get back to the matter.
  2. Once you know how the person who has experienced harassment wants you to act, try to follow their wishes.
  3. Know your own limits. Conflict and harassment situations put a strain on the people resolving them, too. Make sure that you do not take on too much responsibility by directing people towards other providers of help, too. You do not need to suddenly become a health care or crisis situation professional. Some contact details for crisis situations can be found here.

3.3. How to deal with a person accused of harassment

  1. Take the person to the side. Stay as calm as possible and avoid conveying any kind of attitude even if you have just heard that the person has done horrible things. If it is not possible to have a calm discussion immediately after the incident due to the person being upset or drunk, for instance, remember to get back to the matter as soon as possible, the next day, for instance.
  2. The person does not necessarily realise that they have done something wrong. Tell or remind them about the principles in use in the organisation or event.
  3. Give any feedback in a constructive manner. If the behaviour is not unambiguously or objectively wrong, do not accuse the person or claim that they have done something. Explain how their behaviour can be interpreted as wrong or harmful or how it has distressed another person. Focus on the person’s actions and behaviour, not on them as a person. Stress that the other party’s subjective experience is genuine even if the person meant no harm.
  4. Offer advice and support on how the person could improve their behaviour. You can, for instance, offer tips on how the person could stay at the event without causing any further distress to others. It is important that, after your discussion, the person understands what aspect of their behaviour was considered inappropriate. The person can only change their behaviour through understanding. After your discussion, you can assume that the person knows how they should not behave.
  5. If the person continues to behave inappropriately, it is advisable to remove them from the event. We recommend contacting them afterwards to discuss what happened.

You should deal with the person accused of harassment constructively and without making accusations to ensure that you are able to build a mutual understanding of what happened and of desirable behaviour for the future through cooperation instead of producing further conflict. Allowing people to learn from their mistakes and change their ways is important to ensure that the person accused of harassment is not automatically branded for their behaviour.

3.4. How to process reports of harassment

  1. Take the situation seriously. Start resolving the situation without delay.
  2. Find out what has happened from both the person who has experienced harassment and the person accused of harassment. Let them describe the incident in their own words and treat both of them in an equal and just manner. Both need to be allowed to state their point of view and be heard.
  3. Ask both parties how they would like to proceed with resolving the situation. Sometimes, people just want to report the harassment they have experienced and receive assurances that what they have experienced is true. Getting to simply give feedback to the other person may sometimes satisfy both parties.
    • Sometimes, people may have unrealistic wishes, such as getting the other person expelled from an organisation. Harassment contact persons do not hand out or decide on sanctions. Explain your role and its purpose openly. If the person still wants the other party to be sanctioned, advise them to discuss the matter with the board.
  4. If the parties request it, arrange a discussion between them. You can read more about this under the section ‘Discussion between the parties’.
  5. Monitor the situation. Make sure that everyone follows any further measures you have agreed on. You can, for instance, contact the parties after a month or two to ask them how things have been going. At this point, you can also ask them for feedback on the process.
  6. Sometimes, one or both parties may be dissatisfied with the way the matter was processed. The dissatisfaction may stem from several different reasons and does not mean that the process was a failure.
    • Feedback on the process may be perfectly fine, but people may sometimes weaponise constant feedback and contacting the people involved in an organisation. In such cases, you should respond to the contact in a strict but civil manner, telling the person that the matter will not be processed further unless the situation has continued or changed. After this, you can leave any further contacts unanswered.

3.5. Discussion between the parties

A discussion between the parties may, in a best-case scenario, help with the resolution the situation and increase the parties’ understanding of each other’s perspectives. However, discussions are not suitable for all harassment situations. For instance, long-term bullying requires strong expertise to deal with the situation, while organisations cannot get into investigating suspected criminal activity.

You can use this outline as support:

  1. Prepare for the discussion:
    • Ensure that the meeting is held in a quiet place and that you have reserved enough time for processing the matter.
    • Ensure that both parties know about the common rules of the discussion in advance and are ready to commit to them.
      • The discussion is confidential. It is not discussed with external parties.
      • The goal is to help the parties understand each other better and to support them with finding solutions. The discussion is not meant for continuing the conflict.
      • The mediator does not provide ready-made solutions or hand out sanctions to either party. Their role in the discussion is that of an impartial facilitator.
      • Participation is voluntary, and the discussion may be cut short if the parties so wish.
      • The mediator hands out turns to speak. The other party should not be interrupted. All discussion must be civil.
      • If needed, both parties may bring one support person with them. However, it is important to clearly define the support person’s role. They may be present but may not participate in the discussion or comment on it.
  2. When the event begins, remind everyone once more of its purpose and the common rules for it.
  3. Discuss the following themes:
    • What happened?
    • How did it feel? What did you think of what happened?
    • Who have been affected by what happened and how?
    • What would be a good solution to the situation?
  4. Try to steer the discussion forward if it seems to stall. Ask questions that cannot be answered by a simple yes or no.
  5. Make sure that both parties get to speak as much as the other.
  6. At the end, you can agree on a common solution that includes concrete promises on changing the situation.
  7. Also agree on a way to monitor the situation with the parties by, for instance, promising to ask both parties how everything has gone and whether they have stuck with the solution within a couple of months.

3.6. Sanctions

If the harassment or inappropriate behaviour does not end despite discussions, the organisation may need to start thinking about sanctions. Before this, however, you should discuss matters with both parties and try to get the unwanted behaviour to stop. If the problem cannot be resolved through discussion, it may be a good idea to try an oral or written warning. The function of the warning is to provide the person with one last chance to change their behaviour. If neither discussion nor warning works, or if both have already been tried and the problems still persists, the organisation may consider more severe action.

To begin with, we only recommend handing a temporary ban to the organisation’s events and activities. People should be given the opportunity to learn and change their behaviour, and a temporary ban may sometimes serve as a wake-up call. If the inappropriate behaviour continues after the temporary ban has ended, the organisation could consider expelling the member from the organisation.

Stipulations on banning people and taking other disciplinary action is primarily provided in the association’s (or student nation’s) rules. If the rules mention anything on how to decide these kinds of matters, it is crucial to follow them even if they conflict with this guide. Generally speaking, a person should be able to know what kind of sanctions their activities may result in. The association’s rules or a regulation referred to in the rules should state what kind of sanctions the association has at its disposal. This is recommended for the legal protection of both the party handing out the sanctions and the party receiving them.

Here is an example of how a decision on banning a person could be made in an organisation:

  1. The board meeting in which the matter is discussed is decided. Before the meeting, all parties are requested to provide a report either in writing or verbally. This request should mention the following:
    • We want to consult you on the incident in question.
    • The board will process the matter in its meeting on xx.xx.xxxx (date).
    • It may also be a good idea to set a deadline for the report. After this deadline has passed, the board may consider the person unwilling to resolve the matter. Two weeks is usually considered a reasonable time limit, but this depends on the situation.
  2. The board needs to have a prior understanding of what matters it will be deciding on, what should be recorded and why all this is done.
    • Who are present in the meeting?
    • Is anyone present in the meeting disqualified?
      • If there is any suspicion of anyone participating in making the decision being disqualified, you should ask about it directly.
    • What are you trying to achieve with the decision?
      • E.g. ‘The association wants to guarantee that its members have a safe operating environment and feels that this is not possible without restricting member Z’s right to participate in the association’s activities due to reasons X and Y.’
    • What is the decision?
    • What are the justifications of the decision?
    • When will the decision take effect? Is it temporary or indefinite?
      • Will the decision take effect immediately, once the minutes are published or once the relevant parties are informed of the decision – or at some other point?
    • You should also agree on how you will inform the concerned parties of the decision.
  3. After the decision has been made, the parties should be informed of it (e.g. by calling them, telling them face to face, messaging them or emailing them). When informing them of the decision, it is very important to briefly explain the justifications for the decision and, if needed, offer to discuss the matter further face to face.
  4. As the board’s decision is public (or, at least, can easily spread publicly because the relevant parties must be informed of it), it may be a good idea to make an appendix to the minutes on the situation, available by request from the meeting’s secretary, for instance. This way, the name of the person receiving the sanction will not be mentioned in the minutes, with all personal information in the appendices instead. This allows the minutes to remain public and truthfully describe the decision but keeps the details from being immediately available for sharing, which increases perceived safety. It is also possible to declare the minutes as a whole confidential.