Ombud’s corner: When “stop” doesn’t work

In a previous Bulletin article (see here) we discussed the issue of how to deal with unwanted declarations of love. The focus there was on the importance of saying “stop” in a clear and unambiguous manner when faced with actions of this kind. But what do you do when this behaviour persists?


When there is a serious risk of the situation deteriorating into sexual harassment, stronger action needs to be taken. What you need to know is that CERN does not tolerate any form of harassment, which it has defined as “unwelcome behaviour that has the effect of violating a person’s dignity and/or creating a hostile work environment…”, and has clearly established procedures for dealing with such situations, which are laid out in Operational Circular no. 9 on the ‘Principles and Procedures Governing Complaints of Harassment’.

“What is harassment? When does a compliment or the occasional conversational banter turn into harassment?”

“Is it no longer acceptable to show or express one’s liking for a colleague?”

“Are we not going too far towards political correctness and imposing the norms of a few people or groups on the wider community by insisting on certain behaviours and drawing a line through others?”

These are some of the questions that are often heard around the Laboratory when talking about respectful behaviour in the workplace, particularly in a multi-cultural environment like our own.

There is no simple answer to these questions as each and every one of us has our own sense of what is acceptable behaviour and, on the other hand, what makes us feel uncomfortable or even threatened. It is all about understanding the difference between the ‘intention’ and the ‘impact’ of our behaviour, and the key lies in learning to alert ourselves to the signals that tell us we may be at risk of crossing that dividing line and of not being sensitive to the other person’s reaction.

To understand the impact of our actions, we need to focus on whether or not, within the other person’s frame of reference, their sense of dignity was negatively impacted or whether they were in any way humiliated or insulted by what was said or done. In such a situation, to persist with this behaviour in the face of apparent discomfort or even an explicit request to “stop” would be to go against the CERN Code of Conduct and could eventually lead to a formal complaint of harassment.

            “But this sort of thing does not happen at CERN.”

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, our work environment is no less prone to the risk of such problems arising than any other workplace. Whether on the CERN site or while we are away on conferences or other work-related activities, it is up to us to break the prevailing silence and speak up against jokes, remarks or other actions if we perceive them to be contrary to the principles of mutual respect.

As colleagues and bystanders, we all have the responsibility to promote a peer culture that takes a stand against any behaviour that could deteriorate into harassment. At the same time, we need to respect the dignity of all parties concerned by not participating in rumours and gossip and trusting in CERN’s established channels for the informal or formal resolution of such situations, as appropriate.

Contact the Ombud Early!


All previous Ombud's Corners can be accessed in the Ombud's blog.

by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill