Gray Areas


Q: Can men be sexually harassed?

A: Yes. Sexual harassment has a lot to do with power. Women in positions of power have been accused of sexually harassing male subordinates. Also, homosexual or bisexual people have been accused of sexually harassing subordinates or colleague of the same sex.


Q: In my department, we give each other friendly hugs and pats on the back from time to time. As a supervisor, should I be concerned about this?

A: Remember, whether or not a person feels sexually harassed depends on the feelings of the receiver of the treatment. Where one person may feel perfectly comfortable with an occasional hug, or pat on the arm, another person may take offense. Remember that the courts will apply the "reasonable person" standard. Use your best judgment, but your best bet is to error on the side of no physical contact especially if you’re in a position of power (which supervisors often are).


Q: Does this happen here at SPU?

A: Sadly enough yes. Over the years there have been cases of border line quid pro quo, and from time to time, there is a "gray area" hostile environment complaint. Even though we are Christians, and our incidents in this area are few, far between, and comparably mild, we are still human beings working together in a close knit community. We come to our job with different backgrounds and different expectations and when you mix all that together, sometimes people find themselves feeling uncomfortable. Usually the complaints of harassment have to do with "gray" areas and usually the alleged harasser has unintentionally offended the victim.


Q: What about those who work with the University, but are not employed here, like vendors and independent contractors or temporary employees/adjunct professors?

A: The University is responsible to take action on employee complaints regardless if the alleged harasser is a regular employee or an independent contractor. As a supervisor, you should keep your eyes open!


Q: What about consensual relationships?

A: Many people find their life mate through an employment relationship. Where dating in the workplace becomes a problem is when a relationship turns sour. For example, a supervisor is dating her subordinate. The subordinate breaks up with the supervisor. The supervisor then promotes another employee. Regardless of whether the promotion was legitimate, the former "dater" subordinate may claim discrimination/sexual harassment. Or, say 2 peer employees are dating and then employee A breaks up with employee B. Employee B can’t live without employee A and repeatedly pursues employee A (sometimes at work) against employee A’s wishes. Employee A may claim hostile environment sexual harassment. So, be cautious and keep a watchful eye on consensual relationships within your department.


Q: As a supervisor, if someone comes to me with a compliant, do I handle it or do I refer it?

A: It depends on the situation. If one of your subordinates confides in you that they are uncomfortable with the treatment another member of the department is directing towards them, but they don’t want to talk to anyone about it, you do have a responsibility to act as an agent of the University. Don’t promise confidentiality. If what’s being described is blatant physical touching or "quid pro quo" in nature, ask the employee to report it immediately to a grievance officer and if they refuse, you must! If what’s being described is discomfort with an "off-hand" comment where there’s no pattern, or for an example, a shoulder rub where there’s no pattern, it may be best to advise the employee to make it clear to their co-worker that the behavior is causing discomfort and to "please stop". If you choose this route, be sure to follow up with the complaining employee at a later date, encourage the employee to talk to a grievance officer if the treatment does not improve, keep your conversations confidential where appropriate, document everything, and feel free to contact a grievance officer for advice. But remember, you must take some immediate and appropriate action.