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February 4, 1999

Supervisors' workshop promotes awareness of sexual harassment

Sexual tensions are a fact of life, but sexual ha- rassment doesn't have to be. That was one of the messages a group of Pitt supervisors heard Jan. 28 as part of a mandatory Human Resources sexual harassment awareness training session. "The main message of the workshop is that prevention is the best defense we can offer to combat this problem," said Carol Mohamed, Human Resources director of employee relations. "As supervisors, you've got to be proactive," she told the group of 28 Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) supervisory personnel. She said supervisors should know Pitt's policies, make staff aware of them and keep aware themselves of the warning signs of sexual harassment.

Mohamed was one of three Human Resources speakers at the session, along with John Greeno, assistant vice chancellor for employee/labor relations, and Shirley Tucker, employee relations.

The seminar included legal issues, University policies and procedures, a 20-minute film portraying interpersonal workplace scenes, small-group discussions of hypothetical scenarios with sexual harassment connotations and a question-and-answer segment. Greeno, who is a lawyer, began by covering the two main types of sexual harassment recognized by law: quid pro quo and hostile workplace environment. "Quid pro quo, or 'this for that,' is the more obvious type," Greeno said. "Sleep with me or you won't be promoted, or sleep with me and you will be promoted — I think everyone would agree that is unacceptable and it is, in fact, illegal." Greeno said hostile environment harassment is harder to define but much more common. "Behavior that might include unwanted physical contact, a pattern of perceived preferential treatment, verbal conduct, such as profanity or off-color jokes, inappropriate pictures or obscene computer screen-savers — these are the types of things that are covered under an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment," he said. Greeno noted that the University, perpetrators of harassing behavior and supervisors themselves are all potentially liable for creating a hostile environment. Ignorance of a bad situation is not an excuse, he said. "Incidentally, in legal terms, the same rules cover all harassment — racial, religious, physically abusive — not just the sexual type. "It is the impact on the recipient, and not the intent of a person's behavior that is the legally relevant question," Greeno said. Under the law, he noted, behavior is judged by the "reasonable person standard": Would a reasonable person find the behavior offensive? Greeno also said the law protects accusers against any type of retribution by an accused, no matter the outcome of a complaint.

Mohamed summarized Pitt's policies and the guidelines supervisors should follow for preventing or stopping sexual harassment. "The most important thing is not to ignore it," she said. "And don't be a 'Lone Ranger.' Don't assume you can handle this yourself, or that it will go away." According to Pitt's policy, supervisors are required to listen to all complaints. But a complainant should be told up front that the supervisor must follow up by confronting the alleged perpetrator. And, if the matter is not resolved at that level, the supervisor must initiate a University investigation by referring a complaint to Human Resources, the Office of Affirmative Action or the Office of the Provost. "This is why you must not guarantee confidentiality," Mohamed told the workshop participants. If a complainant is concerned about confidentiality, the supervisor should recommend the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, because their services are not part of University investigations and remain confidential, Mohamed said. Technically, the law reads that behavior has to be "pervasive," that is it has to have happened more than once or twice. But according to Mohamed, reporting even a single instance may be important if similar offensive behavior has been documented elsewhere. "If you get a complaint, you should tell the department chair," Mohamed cited as an example. "Maybe that person will be aware of other complaints that you're not aware of." Following Mohamed's talk, Tucker led small group discussions through hypothetical scenarios of workplace relationships varying in degrees of gravity. The discussions centered on what should be the appropriate response by a supervisor, including determining at what point a supervisor should contact Human Resources or other offices. The question-and-answer segment prompted a half-dozen queries. One attendee asked if the training sessions would be mandatory for faculty, expressing the opinion that faculty were more likely to be guilty of sexual harassment than supervisors or regular staff.

Greeno said that while faculty attendance was not mandatory, Pitt's administration was strongly urging all faculty to participate in the training sessions. "We have the support of the administration, the provost [James Maher] and the FAS dean [John Cooper] to bring this message to the faculty," Greeno said. "We plan to go to departments if they want, to do this at the faculty's convenience, so schedule conflicts will not be an excuse." Another questioner described a cultural issue in a department where embracing, even kissing, were typical and acceptable forms of greeting among the international faculty, students and staff affiliated with the department. The questioner asked how this fit with the seminar's caution that touching was a form of harassment.

Mohamed responded, "You have to determine if someone is having a problem with that [behavior]." Greeno agreed that a key aspect was whether the behavior was unwelcome. "But, we do follow the laws of America here," Greeno said. "You have to use common sense, but if this behavior is complained about, it should be addressed." A participant, concerned that leaked allegations could damage an accused person's reputation, asked if legal backing from the University would follow if an accused person threatened to sue. Greeno said that Pitt's legal counsel office would support any member of the community acting according to the established procedures of the University. "Merely because [an accused person] threatens to sue you doesn't mean we can ignore our policies and procedures or the law," Greeno said.

Mohamed added that investigators were discreet following up all complaints. "It's true we can't guarantee confidentiality, but we don't shout these matters out to the world," she said.

Another attendee commented that, with this seminar, Pitt seems to be sending the message that it cares more about covering its own potential legal problems than about supervisors or the workplace per se.

Greeno replied: "That's not the purpose of this and if you're hearing that, we have to re-examine our presentation. Being a lawyer, I tend to think more in legal terms. But our goal with this very important issue is to stop sexual harassment. We want to make people aware of the issue, how to recognize it, what to do, how to promote a positive work environment. Yes, there are legal issues, but we want people foremost to be comfortable working at Pitt." Human Resources is scheduling workshops over the next several months. All faculty and supervisory staff should have attended a workshop by the end of 1999, Greeno said.

–Peter Hart

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