IT’S A DECENT first step. But, make no mistake, a proposed overhaul of policy governing allegations of sexual harassment in the Massachusetts House is a beginning, not an end.
For one thing, the changes are mere recommendations. Most need legislative approval. If they are approved, the bigger concern is whether rules alone can change what a report by the House legal office described as “an imbedded power dynamic” on Beacon Hill “which discourages staff from reporting incidents of harassment due to the fear of retaliation and of jeopardizing one’s career.” To change that cultural mindset, people, especially powerful ones, need to change.
The internal review was conducted by House Counsel James C. Kennedy, with help from outside counsel, including former attorney general Martha Coakley. It was triggered by reporting by Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham about inappropriate behavior that’s part of work life on Beacon Hill, according to a dozen anonymous accounts from women who work there.
The recommendations call for setting up an office to investigate accusations of misconduct against elected officials and staffers. It would be led by an equal employment opportunity officer who would serve a two-year term. To insulate the process from those who don’t like the scrutiny, the EEO officer could only be removed “for misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance.”
The EEO officer would confidentially investigate complaints involving staffers, and could authorize some discipline. Termination, however, would require sign-off from the House counsel or House speaker. With complaints against state representatives, the EEO officer could investigate, mete out private discipline, and confidentially suggest a public punishment to a special committee of elected members. But any public discipline would be left up to the Special Committee on Professional Conduct.
Confidentiality is key to encourage victims of sexual harassment to come forward. But this policy also protects the alleged perpetrator, up to an undefined point. Whether the discipline is public or private depends on how egregious the misconduct — a highly subjective determination. There’s no preordained list of what’s considered serious enough for public disclosure, or what misconduct merits what disciplinary action. That leaves a lot of wiggle room when it comes to defining what constitutes bad behavior and how bad it has to be to become public.
The report recommends mandatory sexual harassment training. It also calls for the House to conduct an “anonymous climate survey,” likely launched this summer, so as to include the highest number of interns, who would also be covered by these policy proposals.
With approval of these recommendations, Beacon Hill’s sexual harassers will officially be put on notice that their conduct can have consequences. However, only the designated enforcers can ensure that it actually does.