Legislative Sexual Harassment Policies That Work

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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As sexual harassment reports continue to grow, attention is turning from business leaders and Hollywood executives to another center of power: government. And as noted in a report from Governing magazine, increasingly that focus is moving to the state house.

Some lawmakers, including some Republicans in Kentucky, consider that emphasis to be unnecessary. People should already know how to act when they come to the Capitol, so talking about it and training on it is a waste of time.

But in New York, the state assembly worked with Merrick Rossein, an employment law professor at the City University of New York School of Law, to draft their new sexual harassment policies. Here, from the article noted above, are the six guidelines Rossein says are necessary for elected officials and their staffs to take sexual harassment seriously.

  • Lawmakers can’t investigate sexual harassment claims themselves. They don’t have the experience to do the investigations professionally. Plus, their positions of power could influence their decision-making process. Rossein argues that legislators should hire independent investigators with expertise in employment law to handle the claims. In the New York Assembly, the investigator reports to a legislative committee.
  • Lawmakers must guarantee confidentiality for accusers. That also means lawmakers who are accused of harassment shouldn’t be able to talk to their accusers until a designated time in the process.
  • The legislative ethics committee has to make sure employers don’t retaliate against employees making the accusation. The punishment for retaliation must be severe.
  • Every lawmaker and employee who is a manager should serve as a mandatory reporter of sexual harassment. If they see or learn of sexual harassment, they are required to inform the ethics committee about it.
  • Training should be interactive and done in small groups.
  • Hearings should have clear due process protections.

“What they have to understand is that sexual harassment really is abuse of power,” Rossein says. “You have powerful people, so you have to know it’s likely to happen. So, knowing it’s likely to happen, what would a prudent, reasonable person or institution do to prevent it or to stop it when it occurs?”

Putting strong, new policies in place can send a message, he says. “It’s a process of changing the culture and saying: Yes, this is serious.”

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