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Sexual harassment can take many forms, and so can ways to stop it

March's Carolina Conversations session explored types of conduct that could be considered harassment and how to address it.

Adrienne Allison speaking.
Adrienne Allison, director of Title IX Compliance and Title IX coordinator, discusses sexual harassment at the March session of Carolina Conversations.

People can think they are just being funny by telling a story or joke when they may be actually offending people or making them uncomfortable without realizing it.

But a lack of awareness — or intent — is not a defense, said Brandon Washington, director of the University’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office. They can still be asked to stop, or face consequences if they refuse.

Figuring out what to do in this situation and others was the topic of this spring’s first Carolina Conversations session titled “Navigating Unlawful Harassment and Uncomfortable Situations in the Workplace.”

The University Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted the session March 21 in the Student Union’s Aquarium Lounge.

Washington, along with Adrienne Allison, director of Title IX Compliance and Title IX coordinator, explored types of conduct that could be considered sexual harassment and the range of options available to people should they be subjected to it.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment, by definition, is “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal, physical or electronic conduct of a sexual nature” that is so severe, persistent or pervasive that it “creates a hostile, intimidating or abusive environment,” Allison said.

It can also occur, she said, when “submitting to or rejecting the conduct is used as the basis for decisions that affect the person’s participation in the University’s programs and activities.”

Knowing what to do can be difficult, Washington said, because sexual harassment can sometimes be hard to define, and even harder to prove. Many people hesitate to complain about harassment because of the fear of retaliation.

Throughout the discussion, audience members were presented with a hypothetical scenario in which a graduate student, Sam, tells you about an assistant professor named Max who has a habit of telling sexual jokes about women, which makes Sam uncomfortable.

Was Max’s conduct problematic?

Yes, Washington said. Attempts at humorous behavior, including ridicule or jokes that perpetuate stereotypes, can be considered hostile environment harassment, he said.

As the scenario between Sam and Max unfolds, Sam finds herself on a coffee date with Max when he starts asking her a lot of questions about her personal life. At one point, he places his hand on her leg and suggests they meet at his house to work on a project.

Becoming an ‘active bystander’

If you were a friend or colleague of Sam, what would you do? Allison suggested the best way to help is to learn to become “active bystanders” when a friend or colleague is faced with sexual harassment.

One way to do that is to confront the offender and ask them to stop, she said. Another way is to interrupt the behavior as it occurs. Active bystanders can also document what is going on and report it – either to a supervisor, law enforcement or the EOC. Another way is to simply offer support when it is needed.

Impacted employees and students also should be aware of the range of options they have, both for confidential counseling and emotional support, and for where they can go to officially report a complaint, Washington said.

If an impacted employee or student files a report to the EOC office, it would trigger an initial assessment by the EOC with the support of the Department of Public Safety, the Office of the Dean of Students and the Office of Human Resources, as appropriate.

They should also be aware of interim measures that the EOC can help put in place to protect them, which include no-contact orders, changes to work assignments, or changes to class assignments and housing.

The EOC team, Washington said, can help a person decide what to do each step of the way.

For instance, Washington emphasized that a victim of sexual harassment can choose not to participate even if the EOC finds sufficient reason to investigate an incident.

That approach, he said, protects both the person subjected to harassment, and at the same time, safeguards other people from becoming victims of such behavior in the future.

To learn more about how to respond appropriately to disclosures about sexual harassment, sexual violence, interpersonal violence or stalking, you can sign up for haven training at safe.unc.edu.

Haven is a three-hour workshop that provides attendees with the skills to listen effectively, respond compassionately and connect survivors to resources on campus and the community.