How to act in harassment situations

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.

3. Processing harassment cases in organisations

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.