Sunday, May 18, 2014
How far must we go to report sexual assault or harassment?
There's been a lot of press lately on the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Right's decision to release the names of 55 colleges and universities being investigated for possible violations of federal law in how they handled sexual violence and harassment complaints. In a pressrelease issued May 1, the OCR made clear that such investigations are initiated "to ensure that the campus is in compliance with federal law."
In other words, the schools cited might or might not be out of compliance when it comes to handling sexual violence or harassment complaints.
Almost as soon as the list was released, people took to social media with posts about whether or not their alma mater was on the list. If the OCR's intent was to draw attention to the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus, releasing the names of these 55 schools did the trick.
Taking this step also raises the issue of how knowledgeable people at those institutions -- or any institution -- are about how they should act if they hear of or witness sexual assault. The first impulse might be to search the Internet for resources on the reporting of such incidents or what responsibility an employee has if a college student or business colleague tells reports that he or she has been the victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
Many colleges and businesses have posted information online about proper procedures. But what's the right thing to do if you go to a campus or company website and find that the information is clearly outdated, with contact for people who no longer work there or dead links?
Is the fact that you tried to hunt down the information enough? Once you find yourself directed to a "Not Found" page, does your obligation end?
Without doubt, the right thing is for institutions to make sure their informational pages about procedures to resolve sexual harassment issues are regularly checked to make sure they contain the most up-to-date information. Institutions should also do a more thorough job of instructing each employee on what to do if they witness or hear of such acts. Even if this amounts to only a list of steps to take and up-to-date phone numbers to call, that's a start.
But if an institution doesn't do these things, someone seeking information should not use this failure as an excuse to not try to help right what may turn out to be a terrible wrong.
The right thing for any employee who witnesses or learns of an incident of sexual harassment or assault is to do whatever it takes to learn the procedures for reporting the problem at his or her institution, then do whatever possible to lessen the chance such an incident will occur again.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications programat Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin