Beacon Hill needs to draw clear lines on sexual harassment

The Massachusetts State House in Boston.
The Massachusetts State House in Boston. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Is it really any surprise that sexual harassment seems to run rampant on Beacon Hill, and especially in the House of Representatives? There should be a clear statement prohibiting sexual harassment by members. Instead, a code of conduct and an employee manual offer bits and pieces of a policy without clearly explaining how the two relate — adding up to one confusing mess.

Currently, the policy governing sexual harassment at the State House is stated in an employee manual, which doesn’t explicitly say that its rules apply to members; meanwhile, guidelines for the handling of misconduct allegations against members are found in a separate document, the code of conduct, which makes no specific reference to the sexual harassment policy.


That ambiguity has consequences. Based on reporting by Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham, what’s in the manual has not been enough to stop the alleged touching, grabbing, and other inappropriate behavior that’s part of work life on Beacon Hill, according to multiple anonymous accounts from women who work there.

Abraham’s column detailed accounts from a dozen female lawmakers, aides, lobbyists, and activists who alleged a range of inappropriate conduct. Some said they were propositioned by men with power over their careers. One woman saw lawmakers gathered around a cellphone to view pornography during formal sessions. Others dealt with unwelcome comments about their bodies, and unwanted touching. The fact that these women were afraid to identify themselves or their harassers shows how intimidating that behavior can be.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump has proposed that language on sexual harassment be written directly into the rules of conduct, explicitly stating the potential consequences, which range from reprimand to expulsion for members. She’s right.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said he was “infuriated and deeply disturbed” to hear the stories in Abraham’s reporting. He called for a review of House sexual harassment policies and pledged to come up with a full list of recommendations by March. His spokesman, Seth Gitell, said the review will include “an analysis and recommendation as to whether the House should amend the House rules to include the specific language on sexual harassment that is currently in the employee manual.”


That’s promising. But not so long ago, Beacon Hill took a pass on doing something like that. In 2011, the entire House Republican delegation proposed a comprehensive rewrite of the House Code of Ethics. Then-state-Representative Daniel B. Winslow, the principal author, modeled his proposal on the best practices of a dozen other states. Much of the news coverage at the time focused on a controversial provision that would have required lobbyists to wear identification badges.

However, the GOP proposal also included a section on professional conduct and civility that specifically prohibited harassment, including “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexually harassing nature.” The goal, said Winslow, a former district court judge, who is now general counsel at a technology firm in Las Vegas, was “to make sure there were bright lines.”

The GOP proposal was referred to the House Rules Committee for “study,” where it died. When House GOP members reintroduced the proposal at the start of the next legislative session, it was rejected along party lines. DeLeo was among those Democrats who voted against it, because, according to Gitell, he wanted to avoid “dueling policies — the more comprehensive polices in the employee manual versus the incomplete version offered in the amendment.” Gitell also notes that rejection of that GOP-sponsored amendment didn’t impede the House Ethics Committee from investigating complaints of improper conduct by a member.


Bump, a fellow Democrat, who served in the Legislature in the 1980s, said more explicit language is needed. Current policy “doesn’t go far enough,” she said.

As the torrent of current headlines makes clear, sexual harassment is not limited to a single industry or political affiliation, and covers a wide range of behavior. Rules alone won’t change an ingrained culture of harassment on Beacon Hill. But rules can put everyone on the same page when it comes to understanding the consequences for breaking them.