On Thursday, members of the House Administration Committee examined changes to the Congressional Accountability Act and sexual harassment reporting process that would reduce the “cooling off” time required and create a victims’ advocate to offer currently-absent support to those reporting harassment.
“The Congressional Accountability Act needs to be reformed,” said Rep. Robert Brady, D-Penn. The act has not been reformed since its passage in 1995. “We need to improve this process, but most importantly we need to change the culture of this place, and that change starts with us.”
The process for reporting sexual harassment within the legislative workforce has come under fire recently for forcing victims to remain in uncomfortable situations for long periods of time, forcing them to sign non-disclosure agreements and stunting their ability to work on the Hill after the complaint has been filed.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said that a victim came to her office, saying that “going through this process was worse than the sexual harassment itself.”
“Shame on us for not having addressed this sooner,” said Speier.
These difficult reporting processes also influence victims to not report in the first place, as Victoria A. Lipnic, acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said that the least common response to harassment is to take some form of formal action.
Brady questioned whether the mandatory month-long cooling off period, which has been labeled by Speier as a ploy for intimidating women out of making sexual harassment complaints, should be done away with entirely.
“I don’t have a strong position on that one way or the other,” said Gloria Lett, counsel in the Office of House Employment Counsel. “My only caution about eliminating that 30-day period is that we do resolve cases during that period.”
Lett did, however, say that one of the most common complaints that her office gets about harassment claims is that the process is too lengthy.
Victims have 180 days from the incident to report the harassment to the Office of Compliance, at which point they go through an up-to-30-day counseling period and have 15 days to decide if they want to go to mediation, which binds them to confidentiality. After that comes the 30-day mediation period in which the two parties meet and can agree on a settlement. If the victim decides to continue with the complaint, they must take a 30-day cooling off period. Finally, the victim can choose to file in a federal district court or have an administrative hearing. As a result, the victim could end up spending 285 days working in the same office with the harasser before they go to a hearing.
Lipnic said that the Congressional Accountability Act and harassment reporting process should also take into account the differences between investigating to protect the rights of the victim and investigating to protect the office from liability.
“You have to be concerned about what is happening to that person that has complained about it when she is still sitting there in that workplace,” said Lipnic. “There is a difference between what immediate action has to be taken when someone is concerned and complains that they are being sexually harassed versus what is the process that the Office of Compliance deals with and the House Employment Counsel when you are looking to ‘is there liability?’”
To that end, Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va., suggested creating a victims advocate or ombudsman to focus on the needs of the person being harassed, as that person can often feel alone and ganged up on at many points in the process.
“I think that’s a very valuable suggestion,” said Lipman, explaining that the EEOC does not provide a victim assistance role, as the commission is largely focused on liability issues. She added that the military created similar positions to deal with the problem of sexual assault against female servicemembers. “I would urge you maybe to consult with the generals who have been dealing with that.”
“I think an advocate would encourage employees to come forward sooner rather than later,” said Lett.
Susan Tsui Grundmann, executive director of the Office of Compliance, suggested that congress beef up what is already available by expanding the counseling phase of the reporting process to include victim support in the complaint filing process.
Lipnic added that while training is important to reducing sexual harassment, focusing on training alone will not solve the legislative workplace’s problem.
“No system of training, monitoring or reporting is likely to succeed in preventing harassment in the absence of genuine and public buy-in from the very top levels of an organization,” said Lipnic.
“Mandatory training and posters are the floor, not the ceiling,” said Grundmann. “To reach the ceiling, not only should our process change, […] the culture must change.”
According to Lipnic, the Congressional workplace has many of the indicators of a harassment prone environment ― power disparity, long hours, close quarters, young employees ― requiring a focus on culture change.
That power disparity also results in victims feeling pressured into signing non-disclosure agreements, which are not required or written by the formal complaint process.
According to Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., Congress has to work to make harassment as culturally unacceptable as certain lobbying and monetary practices.
“It used to be that lobbyists could give members of Congress gifts and take them out for dinner and on fancy trips, and then there was a public uproar, a rule was passed that banned it and now it’s unthinkable in this culture. It used to be that members of Congress could pocket money from their campaign funds when they retired, and there was a scandal, public uproar, a rule against it and it’s unthinkable that anyone would do that today. We simply need to make sexual harassment something that’s unthinkable,” said Raskin. “We have to leave sexual harassment behind the way that we’ve left other sordid practices behind.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.