workers talking at window

It's a scenario that can happen in any workplace: A student's supervisor asks her out for lunch, and she politely declines. Then he asks her again. And again, maybe this time with a sarcastic comment. She begins to feel pressured, and also “Why can't he just let me focus on doing a good job?”

While most co-op students know that the University of Waterloo has a network of advisors to support students through co-operative education terms, not everyone knows that two of these are specially designated as workplace harassment advisors.  Moreover, they’re surprised to learn that the role has been in place for 25 years. Diane McKelvie, one of those advisors, says she and her colleague, Linda Davis, typically handle 10 to 15 harassment issues per year, pointing out that others likely go unreported.

The issues include everything from bullying to lewd comments, says McKelvie. Her job is to lend an ear, and then help a student decide what to do. "Every case is individual, so we definitely listen to the students," says McKelvie.

"Most of the companies that these students work for do have their own HR departments and they do have harassment policies in place,” said McKelvie. “If the student is comfortable, either on their own or with the support of their advisor, we would encourage them to report the harassment."

She says sometimes the students just want advisors to be aware, and in that case McKelvie checks in with them on a weekly basis to ensure the issues haven’t escalated. And while she knows men can be the target of harassment, the majority of students she hears from are female.

Around campus, other elements help raise awareness too. A unit in the Waterloo's Professional Development Program reviews strategies that students can use to deal with harassment. Posters around campus raise awareness more generally. Support is also available from multiple sources, including the Conflict Management and Human Rights Office, and Counseling Services.

In terms of advice, McKelvie counsels students to start with a straightforward approach. Let the person know that you want to keep the relationship professional, that you’re there to work and you need the unwanted attention to stop.  Bottom line, be clear, you don’t want to have lunch alone with your supervisor.

Forms of harassment can often escalate when students keep the information to themselves. She also encourages them to reach out to someone they trust, a friend, colleague or their CECA Advisor or one of the Harassment Advisors.

Communication is key when dealing with these situations. Students need to be encouraged to really go by how they are feeling, and if they are uncomfortable with the situation, speak up about it.” says McKelvie.