How to identify and prevent harassment?

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.