Writing your complaint

Formal complaints under the University of Toronto’s Policy and Procedures: Sexual Harassment need to be in writing, addressed to the Sexual Harassment Officer, signed and dated. The complaint process is confidential: you should not circulate copies of your complaint or discuss it with others.

You should keep a copy of the complaint. A copy will be retained on file in the Sexual Harassment Office, and a copy will be provided to the respondent (the person responding to the complaint). During mediation, no-one else will receive or see a copy of this complaint. If the complaint proceeds beyond Stage 2 and you ask for further action, a copy of the complaint will be forwarded to the University Discipline Counsel, and the University may then take over the complaint as complainant. If your complaint becomes relevant to any subsequent legal action, a court of law may subpoena the University’s files: in this case, the complaint and any records on file have to be submitted to the court.

It is important to remember that your complaint is a legal document, and to write it with this consideration in mind. The following guidelines may help.

1. Be succinct

Try to produce a brief and focussed account of your complaint. Include information which is relevant to the complaint: your name, the name of the respondent, your university status and your relation to one another; don’t include information which is not relevant (for example, information about the respondent’s relations to other people). You are making a complaint about an occurrence or a series of occurrences: focus on that.

Include enough detail to make your account clear to the reader: assume that the reader has no prior knowledge of you, of the respondent, or of the situation. Avoid vague descriptions: be as precise as possible. For example, if your complaint includes a statement that the respondent touched you, say where you were touched, and what you were touched with: for example, “the respondent put a hand on my shoulder”. Explain, also, anything that you may have said or done to communicate the fact that the respondent’s actions were unwelcome.

2. Provide details of dates, times, and places, where you can

Try to write the account in chronological order. If you’re not certain of dates, say so. If you are, include them: they will help to determine exactly which occurrences you are referring to: sometimes respondents do not actually remember an incident which upset or annoyed you, because they were not themselves upset or annoyed.

3. Stick to the facts

It’s important to avoid expressing your suppositions or beliefs as if they were facts. They can often be quickly challenged, and sometimes contradicted, and may make you look less credible or your complaint look flimsy. If you’re not certain about something, it doesn’t mean you can’t refer to it: it means that you can’t state it as a fact. You can, for instance, say: “I received four hang-up calls and I believe they were from the respondent because I have call display and they were from four different callbox numbers” but you cannot say: “the respondent called and hung up four times”.

4. Avoid speculation and inference

Statements you should always avoid include assertions about what the respondent thinks or feels. You know what the respondent does and says; your complaint is based on acts and words; you do not know what the respondent thinks and feels and you cannot make a complaint about thoughts and feelings.

You may have inferred things, or formed conclusions, based on connected facts or events. For instance, you received an anonymous letter, but it referred to things only the respondent would know about. If this is the case, state the different facts or events: don’t simply state the inference. You can say that you’re making an inference, but if you state the facts, they should make the possible inferences clear to a reader.

5. Avoid insulting statements or criticisms

You may well be very angry about the incidents you are complaining about; and you may well feel that the respondent’s conduct is self-evidently unacceptable. If this is the case, let the facts of your complaint provide the evidence: don’t add commentary or evaluations of character. These will more likely impede your interests than advance them.

6. Explain the impact of the conduct you are complaining about

The emphasis here should be on concrete and material impacts: the respondent’s presence in a university facility prevents you from being able to use that facility; or you could not continue working under the respondent’s supervision; or you suffered a loss of income; or you received a grade you consider to be unfair.

There is a distinction to be made between general and specific descriptions of the psychological impact on you of harassment. Statements about the effect of the respondent’s conduct at the time – “I was surprised and angry” or “I was upset by this remark” – are often highly pertinent, but it’s advisable not to make too many statements about your general emotional condition. (“I am nervous with people”, “I have never been so upset”, “I am very angry about this”.) Such statements can sometimes be used against you: to characterize you as unstable or excessively sensitive, for example. It’s also possible that the respondent is seeking to upset you: if this is the case, you will probably not want to confirm the success of the harassment. Of course, your anxiety or concern may well have a continuing effect on your dealings with the respondent or your use of university facilities; if so, you should explain the basis for the concern: for example, “I am unwilling to attend that class because the respondent will be there and I believe there will be further harassment.”

7. Be careful when proposing remedies

It does help to make suggestions as to what would constitute a remedy to the harassment, but at this point you should keep your recommendations in general terms only. Until you have had a response to the complaint from the respondent, you may not have enough information to decide on the best solution; and you should avoid suggestions which limit your options.

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