Column: #MeToo Prompts Tougher Sexual Harassment Policies

Innovations | Ideas for Strengthening the Legislative Institution

By Selena Saucedo

The #MeToo movement of 2017 prompted lawmakers in several states to pass measures to combat sexual harassment in workplaces both inside and outside the legislature. Other legislative bodies modified chamber rules and internal personnel policies. From creating new offices to increasing training requirements to expanding the list of those subject to new policies, these reforms are reshaping the workplace culture in many state capitols.

The Massachusetts House of Representatives was an early adopter of post-#MeToo changes, passing a sweeping rules reform package in 2018 after conducting a human resources audit and reviewing current policies and best practices. The House subsequently created the position of equal employment opportunity officer, charged with oversight of the chamber’s anti-discrimination policy, including harassment, and implementing measures to prevent disparate treatment in the future. According to House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D), the changes made “represent some of the strongest measures in the nation when it comes to fostering a safe, professional workplace.”

The Illinois General Assembly created a Task Force on Sexual Discrimination and Harassment in 2018 to conduct a review of the legal and social consequences of sexual harassment and to make recommendations for both the public and the private sectors. Lawmakers also passed legislation that requires the legislature to adopt sexual harassment policies, establish training for legislators, legislative staff and lobbyists, and create a hotline for reporting harassment.

The Massachusetts House and the Illinois General Assembly also focused on how internal harassment policies can include “third-party” actors in legislative workplaces—or people other than legislators and legislative staff. Including third-party actors in policies recognizes their access to and the interaction they may have with lawmakers and legislative staff. The Massachusetts rule defines third party as “any person visiting the House of Representatives, or conducting official business or work with any member officer or employee of the House.” In other states, third parties can specifically include lobbyists, the media, vendors and other non-legislative employees, and the public.

Most recently, California, Georgia and Maine adopted new laws, rules or policies that include third parties. In a 2019 NCSL survey of 39 legislative HR staff, more than half reported that people other than legislators and staff were also included in their sexual harassment rules or policies.

Despite the trend toward expanding coverage to include lobbyists and others, no two policies are the same.

In Georgia, lobbyists must verify that they have received, read and agreed to abide by the sexual harassment policy of the General Assembly. The Idaho Legislature broadened its harassment policy beyond legislators and legislative employees, interns and volunteers to include “legislative partners,” defined as “lobbyists, representatives of state agencies, members of the media and other individuals conducting business in the Capitol or conducting business with the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Legislative Services Office or the Office of Performance Evaluations.”

Maine requires lobbyists to attend sexual harassment prevention training similar to that conducted for legislators and legislative staff.

And in Washington, the Legislature recently passed legislation requiring lobbyists to complete sexual harassment training developed by the chief clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate.

Whatever direction a state has gone with its harassment policies, it’s clear that lawmakers are serious about eliminating demeaning and inappropriate behavior from their workplaces. And they’re not done. More action is sure to follow.

Selena Saucedo is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.

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