What is Sexual Harassment?

The definition of sexual harassment will vary depending on circumstances, but can generally be considered as any unwanted sexual behavior, such as physical contact or verbal comments or suggestions, that adversely affects the working or learning environment of an individual or group.

Sexual harassment is considered a form of unlawful discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (as amended in 1972), Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, and anti-discrimination legislation in many states, including Massachusetts.

In addition to being illegal, sexual harassment undermines the well-being and peace of mind of members of the community. It impairs the spirit of trust and collegiality that is central to our academic and social community. Therefore, effectively addressing this problem is crucial to making HBS a place where everyone can live and work with dignity and mutual respect.

In some cases, sexual harassment can be an issue of abuse of authority. Although the determination of what constitutes sexual harassment can vary, an element of intimidation or abuse of power is a common ingredient.

Sexual harassment, like other forms of discrimination, can occur in varying degrees and among different members of a community. Often it is as subtle as off-color joking that creates an offensive or hostile learning or work environment. Other times it may be as blatant as making sexual favors a condition for career or academic success. Harassment can occur between any members of the HBS community.

Harassment by peers is as unacceptable as harassment by officers of the School. Peer harassment can include repeated, unwanted telephone calls, obscene calls or messages, lewd or obscene comments or gestures, unwanted touching or fondling, and actual or attempted date or acquaintance rape. Prior relationship, excessive use of alcohol, or previous sexual involvement do not lessen the seriousness of an incident of date rape: it is still a violation of Harvard policies and of Massachusetts law.

Increased Awareness

In some cases sexual comments or actions may occur without intended harm, yet such actions can still be unwanted, threatening, and perceived as harassment. Therefore, stopping harassment requires an increased awareness by all persons -- men and women -- of the impact such actions may have on others.

While most cases at HBS involve abusive, non-assaultive behavior, women are disproportionately victims of rape and sexual assault. Women, therefore, have stronger cause to be sensitive to sexual behavior.

Conduct that some men consider unobjectionable or harmless may offend women and others with a heightened sensitivity to the repercussions of sexual harassment. Thus men, who are rarely victims of sexual assault, cannot afford to view sexual conduct in a vacuum and without a full appreciation of the underlying threat of harassment or violence that a woman may experience.

Sexual harassment is a community issue of concern to all of us. Although most targets of sexual harassment are women, harassing behaviors may be directed toward men as well. People of every age, race, and cultural background may experience harassment.

If You Think You've Been Harassed

You may be unsure about how to get help, or even whether you should take action at all. Many victims do not report their experiences because they are afraid that they will not be believed, that they will be seen as weak, that the situation will become public knowledge, or that the perpetrator will retaliate.

If you have been harassed, it may be especially difficult to come forward at a time when you feel most vulnerable and threatened. Yet it is crucial that you do so, since telling someone almost invariably brings short- and long-term benefits. Keeping a harasser's behavior secret helps no one. Those perceived as harassers will have no reason to stop unless they are challenged.

Telling someone can be a great relief, and the process of verbalizing is often a critical first step in sorting out and deciding how you choose to think about the problem. By talking about the problem, you will learn about the options available to you and thereby gain a sense of control over the situation.

You will be the one to decide how you wish to pursue the matter, so you need not fear pressure to proceed in any way that is uncomfortable for you. A member of the HBS community can initiate either an "informal" or "formal" complaint process.

Each individual may have a preference about how she or he would like to pursue a personal matter. Therefore, the School recognizes the importance of informal complaint procedures, through which designated administrative officers counsel the student(s), faculty, or staff about appropriate options to resolve the complaint. The process is designed to be as flexible as possible in order to best address the needs of individuals in different situations. An important feature of the informal complaint procedure is that the administrative officer will not discuss the complaint with the accused without the explicit prior consent of the accuser.

Options for Addressing Harassment Concerns

If you feel that you are being harassed, consider the following options for seeking help and resolving your concerns:

Confront the harasser.

In many situations, particularly if the harasser is not aware that you find the behavior offensive, confronting an offending person may lead to the end of the harassment. If you feel uncomfortable about speaking with the person directly, a better option may be writing a letter that clearly delineates the offending behavior and requests that it stop. While this might seem surprising, experience has shown that letter writing can be very effective.

Seek advice from peers or designated officers of the administration and faculty.

When sensitive issues such as harassment -- or other forms of discrimination -- arise, there are a number of resources at HBS to contact:

  • Your Peers -- Trustworthy friends, colleagues, or classmates (including elected student reps) can offer an objective ear and provide support to help you sort out your feelings.
  • Designated Administrative Officers -- Several members of the HBS staff are available to address harassment concerns.  See the names of designated administrative officers under point 4.a under Sexual Harassment Procedures.

Bring a complaint forward, and request an investigation.

For the protection of its students, faculty, and staff, HBS has resources to address suspected cases of harassment. At the request of a community member, an informal investigation will be undertaken to ascertain the relevant facts. Often a remedy may be found through informal procedures. If an individual wishes to make a formal complaint, she or he need only submit a written complaint to a designated administrative officer. Upon receipt of the written complaint, a formal grievance procedure is followed, and notice of the complaint is made available to the accused.