When does supervision become Harassment?

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The recent case of Saha v Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine [1] gives some helpful pointers on when emails and actions of a supervisor towards a research student might constitute harassment. It is relevant to all education institutions, particularly universities and colleges.

Harassment is an offence under the Protection of Harassment Act 1997 (the Act), and a person claiming to have suffered harassment can bring a claim in the civil court for damages. So it is not something to be taken lightly: in this case, Saha was claiming damages in excess of £1.5 million.

Harassment is defined in the Act as: a course of conduct on at least two occasions by a person which amounts to harassment (including alarming the other person or causing them distress) and which the first person knows amounts to harassment, or ought to know amounts to harassment, in that a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to harassment of the other.

The Act does not actually say what harassment means, but case law has defined it as “oppressive and unacceptable” conduct targeted at the claimant and deliberately calculated to cause alarm or distress.

In this case Miss Saha was a PhD research student at Imperial College. Her supervisor became increasingly frustrated with her lack of progress in her research and sent her an ill-judged email which, although aimed at providing constructive criticism, he later acknowledged “comes across as being very direct” and, as the judge pointed out, was “a litany of complaints expressed in a somewhat intemperate way” with a liberal use of exclamation marks. This was followed by further emails, some of which copied in her colleagues. This was because they were also not using their time in the lab as effectively as the supervisor thought they could be, so the same points applied to them.

The judge found that although the supervisor’s conduct was unreasonable and unjustified in some respects, and his emails were “expressed in an intemperate, high-handed and at times accusatory tone”, his prime motivation, both subjectively and objectively, was to get Miss Saha’s work on track. His conduct was not objectively calculated to cause alarm or distress, even if at times it did cause distress. He also should not have shared her complaint with other members of the lab team, even though some of the same issues applied to them also.

The key point is that, had the supervisor continued to act in this manner, this might have been a course of conduct capable of constituting harassment. However, because he took on board criticisms made of his behaviour and toned down his requests and did not continue to flout her confidentiality, there was no course of conduct amounting to harassment and even if there was, the supervisor neither knew nor ought to have known that that course of conduct amounted to harassment.

This case is a reminder that supervisors and staff need to be very careful about the tone they use in emails and in speaking to students (and indeed other members of staff), to avoid a claim for harassment. Reading the judgment it is clear that Miss Saha (who represented herself at trial) had, as the judge put it, “become fixated on her case” and had made a number of allegations that were untrue. This does not detract from the fact that Imperial College still had to go through a lengthy and no doubt costly court case to be proved right. It would have been better in the first place if the emails had been toned down to be more reasonable.

[1] Saha v Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine [2013] EWHC 2438 (QB)