The NCSL Blog

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By Kevin Frazzini

Los Angeles—Sexual harassment is mainly a problem for Hollywood actors and Wall Street traders, right?

Johnny Taylor speaking at Legislative SummitWrong.

“The legislative workplace is not exempt,” said Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Taylor spoke at Tuesday’s general session, “Healthy Workplaces: Culture Trumps Compliance,” on the second day of NCSL’s Legislative Summit.

Recent news reports back him up. At least 32 state lawmakers have left office in the face of credible sexual harassment accusations, Pew’s Stateline reported today.

Statehouses have all the ingredients that can lead to trouble in other workplaces: long hours, sometimes extending into the evening; ambitious young people looking to get ahead; older, powerful supervisors—generally men—often regarded as “too big to fail.”

That cases of harassment in legislatures haven’t drawn the same attention of those in the worlds of business and entertainment is simply a sign that names in the statehouse aren’t as easily recognizable as those of movie stars and business elites, not that problems don’t exist.

“Your industry has essentially dodged a bullet,” Taylor said. That’s difficult news for anyone who cares about legislatures to hear, but Taylor’s personable delivery and engaging stage presence make him an ideal tough-love messenger.

To create workplaces where harassment isn’t tolerated, we must do more than make rules and policies. Those are essential, but they’re not enough. Even zero-tolerance policies won’t work if a workplace lacks an atmosphere of trust, he said.

Trust is rooted in a company’s culture, and Taylor’s challenge to legislators was to create workplace cultures based on honesty and transparency. To that end, he offered five principles to guide legislative efforts.

Be practical about people. It’s human nature for workers to pursue each other and their mentors. Prohibiting workplace relationships only encourages secrecy. Rather, follow a policy of full disclosure and, if trouble arises, allow people to come forward privately.

Handle all complaints swiftly and transparently. Ideally, investigations will be handled by an independent panel, not an individual. Discipline should be progressive, up to and including termination. But here’s where things get tough: Don’t go too far. Avoid creating an environment in which people are walking on eggshells or fear being treated as guilty until proven innocent. Keep in mind, Taylor said, that 56 percent of sexual harassment allegations are found to be without merit.

Strive for real diversity. A truly diverse workplace accommodates more than age, race and gender variety. It includes people whose backgrounds are nontraditional, people looking for second chances, people with unique perspectives. What’s important is that, no matter who they are, they contribute something positive to the workplace.

Be consistent. The rules that apply to the staffer also apply to the legislator, and women should be treated the same as men. Sexual harassment primarily affects women, but men can be victims, too. “Sexual harassment is about power,” Taylor said, “and it’s committed by people in power,” male or female. (Men are responsible for 1 in 5 harassment complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)

Use your human resources experts. Your legislature’s HR professionals are trained to make the tough calls, to stand up to perpetrators. The Society for Human Resource Management is an ally you can rely on, with guides on employee relations and sample employee handbooks and interview questions.

NCSL is here for you, too, with details on the status of anti-harassment legislation proposed in 2018 and a variety of policy examples.

How will we know when we’ve succeeded in creating great workplace cultures? “When what’s taken for granted today is no longer tolerated,” Taylor said.

Additional Resources

Kevin Frazzini is the assistant editor of NCSL’s State Legislatures magazine.

Email Kevin.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.