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Tips: Training Faculty on Workplace Sexual Harassment

Alyssa Keehan, Esq.
April 2021
Guidance to educate faculty about sexual harassment in the workplace

Many higher ed institutions find it challenging to educate faculty about workplace sexual harassment, but United Educators’ (UE’s) claims experience shows this training is critical. For more information, see Workplace Harassment: A Review of Sexual Harassment and Assault Claims.

Actions that can help a school reach faculty and some administrators include:

Get Backing From High-Level Administrators

Faculty are much less likely to ignore invitations to sessions on sexual harassment prevention if the

Chancellor, President, or Provost backs the effort. Have an appropriate official send faculty the invitations directly, conveying their strong support of the training.

Avoid the Word “Training”

Many faculty members dislike the term “training” and feel it doesn’t apply to them. Consider language that may resonate more, such as “workshop,” “seminar,” “forum,” “roundtable,” or “symposium.”

Adopt an Appealing Format

An in-person group discussion using hypothetical case studies may be the most effective training method for faculty. It lets participants explore nuances of the hypotheticals and debate whether the scenarios constitute prohibited harassment under the school’s policy.

Choose an Appropriate Trainer

Consider having a Provost, Dean, or respected department chair lead the discussions, perhaps with external or in-house counsel. Including an attorney experienced in state law is wise for institutions in states such as New York that have specific statutory training requirements.

Review the Policy on Consensual Relationships

Periodically refreshing faculty on your institution’s policy is a good practice. If your institution bans any relationships (for example, between employees and direct supervisors), focus on these and remind faculty of the penalties for noncompliance.

Highlight the Pitfalls of Electronic and Digital Communication

As UE claims demonstrate, sexual harassment can be unearthed by examining employees’ email, voicemail, and, increasingly, texts. Remind faculty of your policy governing electronic communications using institution-owned devices. Also ask them to consider whether they would be comfortable if their exchanges with another employee were read by the institution’s President or by their own spouse.

Incorporate “Real-Life” Examples

Many faculty believe they would never sexually harass a colleague or subordinate and may consider the training an academic exercise, perhaps a waste of time. Including actual harassment situations, such as the claims examples in UE’s Workplace Harassment: A Review of Sexual Harassment and Assault Claims or recent high-profile matters covered in the press, can effectively convey the risk.

Include Illustrations of Appropriate and Inappropriate Topics or Language

The collegial nature of many institutions or departments often means that faculty members behave in friendly, casual ways with other employees. Remind faculty who serve in formal or informal supervisory roles — including mentoring relationships — to maintain professional distance when communicating.

Address the Possibility of Personal Liability for Harassment

A potential personal financial stake may catch the attention of faculty for whom nothing else is persuasive. Individual employees who engage in sexual harassment aren’t personally liable under Title VII and many comparable state laws because they apply only to “employers” (such as institutions), not individuals. However, check all applicable laws; some states, including California and Michigan, specifically permit individual supervisors to be sued for sexual harassment. In addition, harassment victims may sue their alleged harassers personally on various “common law” grounds, such as infliction of emotional distress, false imprisonment, assault, and battery.

Finally, for matters resolved without a trial, as most are, consider advising faculty that depending on the circumstances (such as when repeated or otherwise egregious misconduct is involved), the school may seek a settlement contribution from the responsible supervisor.