How Congress handles sexual harassment: ‘535 policies’

 In Politics

The mushrooming scandal over sexual harassment in Congress and its secretive system for handling complaints has yet to zero in on another troublesome reality on Capitol Hill: What counts as harassment in one lawmaker’s office might not be considered that in another.

That’s because individual lawmakers’ offices effectively function as lone entities that formulate their own internal policies for employee behavior. And the Office of Compliance, the arbiter of misconduct complaints that provides harassment training now required in the House and Senate, does not provide templates.

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“It’s possible there are 535 different policies,” Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the compliance office, said in a recent interview.

To better understand the scope of the Hill’s workplace culture, POLITICO asked all 535 House and Senate offices — plus four delegates — about whether they had a harassment policy in place and whether it included a training program.

Of the offices that shared part or all of their internal policy, all the Senate offices defined harassment as including “suggestive or lewd remarks, including sexual innuendo” as well as “displaying sexual or pornographic images, regardless of the medium used (e.g. virtual, digital, paper, etc.).”

But most of the House offices’ policies were less specific, issuing a general prohibition on “verbal or physical conduct or activity” among the behavior that creates a hostile work environment.

Three of the offices that agreed to share their policies — those of Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), as well as Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) — were significantly more far-reaching, barring fraternization between supervisors and subordinates. House members are weighing a broad resolution that would prohibit those relationships, according to Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.).

The differing approaches from one office to another add a fresh challenge to efforts to deter and punish harassment in Congress. Underscoring the complicated nature of the Hill’s workplace culture is the occasionally confusing guidance in the compliance office’s anti-harassment video, which at one point suggests that a few late-night texts and hugs from one’s boss wouldn’t be enough to constitute misconduct.

The handful of lawmakers in both parties who are calling for broader reforms to the system already face political headwinds, as colleagues wrestle with the urge to protect their own amid what seems to be a daily drip of new harassment allegations.

“It’s an inappropriate construct we have right now, that basically says every office is a small business unto itself and the member is the CEO,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said in an interview. Speier is a chief author of legislation that would overhaul the Hill’s workplace misconduct system.

About 43 percent of the House and 60 percent of the Senate responded to POLITICO’s harassment survey, at least in part. Of the 190 House offices that responded, all but 18 said an internal harassment policy was already in place and 131 confirmed that training was already part of it.

Of the 62 Senate offices that responded, all but five confirmed they have an internal harassment policy and 52 confirmed that training already was part of it. POLITICO followed up with each personal office that did not initially respond to a request for details on internal harassment policy. In both the House and Senate, more than 60 percent of responses came from Democratic offices versus those in the GOP.

The House on Wednesday approved a measure that mandates anti-harassment training, a move the Senate made earlier this month. But the high number of congressional offices responding that they already required — or at least encouraged — employees to get trained suggests that Congress will have to do more to address the problem if it is to have significant results.

Now that training is required, Speier said, among Congress’ next steps should be “a uniform policy about what’s in the handbook in each office. I do believe it will become standardized.”

For the lawmakers who already ask their aides to undergo anti-harassment training, the compliance office’s video is a convenient and popular method.

One segment in the video features a congressional aide named Chloe who’s having trouble with her boss. He praises her looks, twice hugs her in front of coworkers, and sends her a trio of late-night text messages — one while apparently drunk — complimenting her outfits.

A clear case of harassment? Not really, according to the video, which says the behavior Chloe encountered over the course of a year “probably” would not meet the standard to demonstrate wrongdoing — though a late-night message with an explicit sexual proposition might.

“However, Chloe’s boss probably made Chloe feel uncomfortable due to his inappropriate conduct, and he may have violated office policies,” the training video states.

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