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January 5, 2017

HARASSMENT: How to recognize & deal with it

“Any type of harassment is not welcome and not acceptable on our campus,” Katie Pope, Title IX coordinator in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, told attendees at a new faculty and development workshop, “Understanding Harassment: How to Recognize and Respond,” held last month.

Harassment can be experienced anywhere in the work or academic environment, said Pope: from supervisors or underlings, colleagues or on-campus contractors, students or teachers.

“Harassment comes in many forms,” she noted. It may manifest in the most obvious manner, through hostile or inappropriate remarks, such as repeated comments based on a person’s race, gender, age and other factors — factors that are protected under local laws and University rules.

Or it may simply be persistent, unsolicited compliments that leave the recipient feeling abused. “That is no longer offering a compliment,” Pope said of such situations. “That is making someone uncomfortable.

“It can be a single incident that is so severe that automatically you’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t deal with this,’” Pope added.

Harassment even can occur as a result of observing the verbal or physical mistreatment of others.

The two basic types of harassment are offering a quid pro quo and creating a hostile environment.

The quid pro quo — essentially Latin for “this for that” — occurs when a supervisor or coworker bases the possibility of a promotion, assignment or other job opportunity on “acceptance or rejection of a workplace sexual or romantic relationship,” Pope explained.

A hostile environment can be created in a number of ways. She cited several examples: “Every day when I walk in … this guy tells me the same joke and it’s totally inappropriate.”

“Every day in the breakroom these women are talking about their weekend and the sex they had.”

When such events become pervasive or severe, interfering with a work or academic performance, this can create a hostile environment.


Harassment may not be as easily discernible as a direct insult or a sexual come on.

Pope offered examples of sentiments a supervisor may spout that add up to harassment:
• “Well, I don’t think you’d want to participate in this. Everybody else is doing it, but they’re in their 20s and 30s.”

• “I know that you and your partner wouldn’t want to be involved in this because everybody else is unmarried.”

• “We’re only going to offer this job opening to young white women, because we know the supervisor only likes them.”

“I hope nobody is this dumb, all evidence to the contrary,” Pope added.

Perhaps more commonly understood today is the fact that sexual misconduct, from stalking to assault, is a form of harassment, she said.

But even consensual relationships can lead to one party harassing the other, Pope explained. When considering such a relationship, she said, “We ask that you think very hard about what that means for your workplace.”

(Faculty Assembly will be considering a revised consensual relationship policy for the University at its meeting on Jan. 17; see article.)

Of course, faculty with responsibility for a student’s academics or employment should not engage in a relationship with that student. But even faculty or work colleagues who have no power over one another ought to consider avoiding the situation, she believes:

“As we know,” she said, “anything can get weird.”

Good intentions do not excuse harassment, Pope explained: It’s the impact of one’s actions, not the intent, that create an untenable harassment situation.

If the conduct is unwelcome and offensive to an individual, it is harassment, Pope said. If you face a situation about which you are uncertain, she counseled — if you think, “Am I making a big deal over nothing?” — it’s time to apply the “reasonable person standard”: Would a reasonable person share your judgment that the behavior you are experiencing from another individual is unacceptable?

Pope also advised Pitt staff to consider the power dynamic when assessing a possible harassment: Is the undesirable behavior coming from a person in power? If your supervisor is in the breakroom telling ethnic jokes, the situation is going to be even tougher to handle than if such actions stemmed from colleagues or underlings.


While it’s possible and sometimes desirable to stem harassment by objecting directly to the perpetrator, Pope urged workshop attendees to report such incidents or patterns to her office.

“This is the time when we want to step in and provide assistance,” she said. “I want you to get past it. We really want you to give us a call.”

Reporting harassment is important, she noted, not only because no one should have to tolerate abuse, but because the University desires, and is required, to stem such actions.

One easy initial step is to fill out Pitt’s online bias report form on the reports tab at You may include your name on this form or be anonymous. Such reports may help establish a pattern if, for instance, a student is harassing teachers or fellow students across many classes in a variety of disciplines and the disparate faculty are not in contact to share this information.

Given only anonymous reports, Pope cautioned, her office may not be able to address the alleged perpetrator directly. But she and her colleagues may be able to conduct a climate survey in an individual department to assess whether harassment is happening more widely.

Of course, those with a harassment complaint also may call Pope’s office for assistance. She stressed that her office does not necessarily begin an investigation following every call, nor as the first response to callers. If a problem does not resemble harassment, her office may refer a caller to Pitt’s employee relations or other University resources for help.

If harassment seems evident, Pope’s office first will seek to discover what remedy the caller is pursuing, such as a no-contact order or other way to separate perpetrator from victim, alleviate immediate discomfort and fear or let the victim re-enter the work or academic environment.

University rules say that making a complaint “cannot be held against you,” she said, adding that you should report adverse treatment that happens based on any complaint that has been made. Investigations into harassment or assault generally take 60 days, she said, but with retaliation investigations “we can move much more quickly” — for instance, to remove a supervisor against whom the complaint was made and place a new supervisor above the harassed employee.

More subtle forms of retaliation, such as switching an opportunity from the complaining individual to a colleague, are harder to investigate, she admitted:
“There’s no magic wand to this … to make sure every time it goes exactly as we have planned.”

Pope said her office is happy to make presentations about harassment to individual departments.

“Even if you’re not sure,” she said, “if you don’t know, is this harassment, sexual harassment, bad behavior? … give us a call and let’s talk through it.”

While the University has no plans to change its anti-harassment policies and practices, how the country will handle the issue is a bit up in the air, she concluded.
As one workshop attendee pointed out, with the president-elect dismissing sexual harassment as “locker-room talk” and his very public stance against immigrants, Muslims and other groups, some people fear that harassment now will be accepted.

“Do you expect it to affect our environment in any way?” the female attendee asked. After all, she added: “Now we know 50 percent of the country doesn’t mind these things.”

“Will we see an increase in incidents of harassments, abuse, discrimination?” Pope said. “Possibly. We know that if there’s definitely a sense that this is an opportunity for some really inappropriate behavior perhaps, we want to be there to address this.”

—Marty Levine 

Filed under: Feature,Volume 49 Issue 9

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