Most state legislatures in the United States have had a sexual harassment policy in place prior to 2018. In reaction to a renewed public discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace, and complaints against state legislators, however, state legislatures throughout the country are revisiting their approaches.
A Renewed National Discussion
In the last year, a national discussion of sexual harassment in the workplace has been underway. Following allegations against powerful and public figures, social media has served as a platform for discussing sexual harassment and for inspecting the extent of individuals’ experiences with the issue. People, mostly women, began using the hashtag #MeToo to share their stories. The emergence of a culture shift accompanied this movement, as it conveyed to people that they are not alone in having experienced harassment. A month after the initial #MeToo message was used on Twitter, millions throughout the world had participated in the conversation by posting, reacting, or commenting.
State Legislatures Respond
In the face of the renewed public discussion, state legislatures throughout the country, like many employers, have recently taken steps to respond. In January 2018, the Associated Press conducted a 50-state review of state legislative sexual harassment policies. It found that at least one legislative chamber in approximately three out of four states has updated its policy, developed a proposal to do so, or has begun reviewing its policy. When including the time since the AP’s January 2018 report, there has been at least some type of response, such as reviewing or revising a policy or instituting training, in all fifty state legislatures.
The most common revisions have been to how complaints are reported, investigated, and recorded as well as clearer statements regarding dissemination, training, and periodic review of policies. With that said, certain states have begun broaching the subject of expanding the scope of conduct covered by their policies, while others have also started asking deeper questions about their workplace cultures.
The Early Signs of a Next Generation Response
Some states have embarked on the discussion of setting expectations for workplace behavior above the bare minimum of avoiding legal liability. For instance, the Oregon legislature has a policy, most recently revised in January 2016, which already defines workplace harassment more broadly than the legal definition. The policy has been identified as a strong example with many of the procedural elements other states have more recently incorporated. Despite the breadth and strengths of its policy, Oregon is in the process of reexamining its approach. The Alaska legislature has looked to Oregon’s current policy when drafting policy revisions. The subcommittee charged with revising the policy is now considering whether it also needs a separate “civility” policy to address inappropriate behavior not covered by a more traditional harassment policy.
In addition to addressing specific policies and procedures, there is a larger discussion of workplace culture happening in legislatures around the country. Although not the only state legislature where culture is being discussed, the California legislature has taken significant and concrete steps to assess its culture. A Joint Committee on Rules Subcommittee on Sexual Harassment Prevention and Response has been holding a series of hearings as part of an effort to review and revise the legislature’s sexual harassment policies and procedures. Another example can be found in Idaho, where the legislature has empaneled a Respectful Workplace Task Force Committee that has been regularly meeting to assess the legislature’s approach to harassment, including discussion of “steps for changing culture.”
The Colorado General Assembly Considers a Comprehensive and Transformational Set of Recommendations
The Colorado Legislature is on the front edge of this wave of reform. ILG’s recently released report, entitled “General Assembly 2.0: A Transformational Approach to Legislative Workplace Culture,” contains a comprehensive set of recommendations for improving a state legislature’s approach to harassment, that include both culture initiatives and policy and practice revisions. ILG’s goal in creating its report was to provide a blueprint for positive reform both close to home and around the country.
To review the full report, see Legislative Workplace Study.
It is clear that change is coming to state assemblies around the country. There are a few things that can help legislatures look to the future of creating better work environments that make the most of this historic moment:
● Take your community’s pulse. Whether by survey or listening session or brown bag lunches, find out how your community members are doing. The absence of complaints does not ensure the environment is free from harassment. It is important to give community members different venues to speak up.
● Revisit your policies and procedures. Most state assemblies had not done this in some time, and updates may be required.
● Look outside the box. Don’t just sign up for standard compliance training for your community. Consider “next gen” training as a complement. Look at civility or respect-based training. Consider bystander awareness modules. Give your community the tools they need to recreate your workplace in its next best iteration: General Assembly 2.0, the upgrade.