Information advisors can assist with harassment, discrimination complaints

Brenda loves her job, at least she used to. Everything was going well until Mark joined the department. He was funny at first, cracking jokes about harmless things. But lately, his so-called funny remarks are no laughing matter. He tells Brenda inappropriate, sexually explicit jokes and makes vulgar comments about her body. Brenda now dreads going to work. She still enjoys her job and doesn't want to leave, but she is tired of Mark's shenanigans.

Brenda, Mark and this scenario are fictitious. But unfortunately, similar situations are a reality. That's why Robin Kelley, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, recently created the OEO information advisors, a group of 20 individuals who have been trained to assist faculty, staff and students experiencing any form of harassment, including sexual harassment, or discrimination on campus. The group replaces the former discrimination and harassment assistors program.

Purpose of the information advisors

The information advisors are unit-level contacts for faculty, staff and students who would like to talk with someone about a harassment or discrimination incident related to race, color, age, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, national origin, marital status, disability or protected veteran status. The advisors help ensure the university responds appropriately and effectively to situations that violate state and federal laws requiring a nondiscriminatory and harassment-free workplace and educational environment. The advisors also provide individuals with information about university and community resources.

Information advisors do not conduct investigations or act as advocates for complainants. Faculty, staff and students may contact any information advisor, not necessarily the persons assigned to their colleges or departments, or where the incident occurred.

"Information advisors provide a safe place for individuals to talk about issues, explore university options and provide necessary resources," Kelley said. "Information advisors can connect faculty, staff and students to departments on campus, including OEO."

Confidentiality not guaranteed, but respected

A key difference between the new advisors group and the former assistors group is that when an information advisor receives a report of harassment or discrimination, those reports are no longer confidential.

"The assistors program was a strictly confidential resource for employees to report discrimination and harassment. The problem was, no one was reporting incidents to the OEO so we couldn't address or track complaints, which we are required to do by law," Kelley said. "We want to create a climate where people feel comfortable coming forward. That's how we elicit change."

Kelley said that while conversations with information advisors will be reported to the OEO, the information may or may not result in a complaint or investigation, depending on the nature of the report. When confidentiality is requested, it will be honored in most cases.

"Just because an information advisor has reported an employee or student incident to OEO does not mean that the employee or student must file an official complaint," she said. "In most cases, the information will stay in the OEO, unless the situation presents a safety issue or danger to the campus community. Under Title IX, the institution is required to take certain actions but even in those circumstances, we cannot compel individuals to file complaints."

Information advisors are also advised to let individuals know they can discuss hypothetical situations without mentioning specific names, dates or places. But once concrete details are provided, the information advisors are required to report the incident to the OEO and, in some cases, the Title IX coordinator directly.

More information about the role of the information advisors is on the OEO website.

How the information advisors were selected

Members of the information advisors group were appointed by university administrators last spring to represent Iowa State's colleges and other departments across campus. Members were not required to have a legal background, but rather be trustworthy individuals with good judgment.

Kelley has conducted extensive training with the group. The training will continue annually or as discrimination and harassment laws change.

"The information advisors are our connection to departments and are our partners since our office can't be everywhere," Kelley said. "These group members are the bridge between us and the campus, and help us ensure a campus that is inclusive, welcoming and free from discrimination and harassment."