Simple Questions with Complicated Answers Part 8

Written by: Deborah Eerkes


Q: Why can’t we solve the problem of retaliation?

A: A graduate student I’ve been working with recently referred to our project as a “hydra,” the mythical beast that grows 10 new heads every time you cut one off. We solve one thorny problem and ten more crop up. Retaliation reminds me of this a bit, in that it is such a complex problem and dependent entirely on the dynamics between the specific parties. No one-size-fits-all solution will solve the problem.

We often think of retaliation as the use of threats or violence as a way to keep a person silent or punish them for speaking out. It can be that, but covert forms of retaliation are far more insidious, including adverse employment or academic consequences disguised as legitimate supervision. They have plausible deniability, or the possibility that adverse action was justified by some act or deficit of the supervisee. It is not surprising that a person who reports GBV is more likely to leave their job or academic program than the subject of their report. A study funded by the Time’s Up Legal Fund found that 7 in 10 people who reported harassment in the workplace experienced some form of retaliation, from being fired to poor performance evaluations, additional scrutiny on their work, exclusion from important projects or being ostracized at work.

Where the person who caused harm is not in a position of power, they can use their social capital to retaliate – whisper campaigns, spreading rumours, damaging reputations and socially isolating a survivor are all common tactics and very effective forms of retaliation.

The very systems we set up to address misconduct can also be a tool of retaliation: counter-allegations, claims of vexatious complaints made by vindictive people, civil defamation lawsuits. Dr. Jennifer Freyd coined the DARVO acronym – deny, attack, reverse victim and offender – as a way to describe this form of retaliation. Attempts in Canada to protect survivors through anti-SLAPP legislation (anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) have fallen short.

I have seen in my own work how quickly an institution can move from supporting a survivor to labeling them as a “problem” that needs to be handled. In every single one of those cases, the complainants left their institutions and the subjects of their complaints stayed. Some of the complainants did continue to engage with their institutions after they were told nothing more could be done, mostly because they became increasingly frustrated and desperate to have their concerns appropriately addressed. Standard complaint process did not help them and, in some cases, put them at even more risk of being considered problematic and being themselves removed from the institution. For students, that could take the form of more stringent academic assessment to remove them on academic grounds; staff could be ‘reorganized’ out, accused of false allegations and subjected to discipline themselves, or be subjected to an intolerable work environment.

Generally, PSIs have taken a similar approach across the board – make it clear in policy that retaliation constitutes misconduct and promise to investigate it, take it seriously and ensure that the individual will be subject to disciplinary action. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work. Consider the likelihood that a person who is experiencing retaliation as a result of their complaint will want to subject themselves to more of the same (or escalating behaviour) by making a new complaint, having to participate in an investigation, and, in many cases, being informed that their complaint was unsubstantiated. I would put the odds close to nil. Consider also the long timelines of our complaints processes – weeks or months to complete investigations and come to decisions about what should happen. The opportunities for more retaliation only increase under these conditions.

Power relationships within PSIs make retaliation so easy, it’s almost as though they were set up to allow it. Graduate students in particular are almost entirely reliant on their supervisors for everything from academic assessment, mentoring, progress through their program, reference letters, funding, career prospects, contacts in other institutions and on and on. International students might additionally rely on their supervisor for matters related to immigration and visas. The opportunities for retaliation are extensive and real. It is not surprising when a graduate student opts for a toxic relationship with their supervisor over reporting or even seeking help.  The alternative is far too risky for them.

While graduate students might be the most vulnerable group, undergraduate students and employees are also at risk. Fear of retaliation is one of the main reasons for refusal to make a complaint or to provide witness statements to an investigator. Whether or not it actually occurs, the mere possibility of retaliation in its many forms keeps individuals from coming forward, and that means that GBV continues, unabated.

This seems like an impossible problem. So what can PSIs do about retaliation?

  1. Distribute power and authority rather than vesting it with one person. This is especially important to protect graduate students. Considering shifting the structure of graduate supervision from an individual supervisor to mentoring teams (more engaged than supervisory committees).

  2. Do not require a separate complaint. Recognize retaliation as part of an escalating pattern of GBV rather than treating it as a separate violation. It should increase your level of concern and potentially trigger other responses, such as interim (or immediate) measures. It should be part of the conversation when you check in with a complainant. Ask the question, don’t wait for a survivor to volunteer the information.

  3. Take preventative measures rather than waiting for retaliation to happen. In every GBV complaint, make it part of the protocol to analyze the various opportunities for retaliation, and do something to prevent it. Assign a different supervisor, put secure funding in place, have others assess a student’s work, find others who can write letters of recommendation. Wherever the subject of the report has potential power over the survivor, distribute that to others.

  4. Provide a safe place for people to disclose and seek options.

  5. Recognize when the occupational health and safety obligations for corrective action are triggered. In other words, if retaliation is occurring (workplace incident) or possible (workplace hazard), the institution must do something.

This is not easy and it will never be 100% effective, but it is the PSI’s responsibility to do everything it can to prevent retaliation and to address it swiftly and appropriately when it does occur.


Suggested Reference : Eerkes, D. (2023, March). Simple Questions with Complicated Answers Part 8: Why can’t we solve the problem of retaliation? Courage to Act.

Deborah Eerkes

Deb Eerkes is the Sexual Violence Response Coordinator at the University of Alberta. Her role includes reviewing and strengthening institutional policy and procedures, ensuring training programs are accessible and reflect best practices, and building a network of expertise and resources across the institution. Deb has formerly held a number of positions and responsibilities at the University of Alberta, including Student Ombudsperson, University Discipline Officer, Human Rights Officer and Director of Student Conduct & Accountability. She has been a key participant and leader of many institutional initiatives, including development of the Sexual Violence Policy suite, the restorative justice program in University residences, the Helping Individual at Risk policy suite, and the academic integrity program.

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