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Members of Congress receive skimpy sexual harassment training

Sexual harassment training is not required on an ongoing basis for lawmakers on Capitol Hill
Sexual harassment training is not required on an ongoing basis for lawmakers on Capitol Hill
Alex Brandon/AP

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If you work as a supervisor for a private company in California, it’s likely you’ve had several hours of training on how to identify and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. 

That’s not the case in Congress. 

The spotlight is now on human resource practices on Capitol Hill because most of the allegations of sexual harassment aimed at San Diego Mayor Bob Filner occurred when he was serving in Congress. But those elected officials receive a minimal amount of training around sexual harassment.

New members of Congress attend an orientation on how to hire a staff, set up a website and how to negotiate ethics rules. Sexual harassment is mentioned in general terms, but no specific training is mandated for lawmakers. And members who are re-elected may never hear it again.

L.A. Democrat Lucille Roybal-Allard has served in Congress for two decades. She says all members should get sexual harassment training, but particularly her male colleagues who don't "understand the difference between certain actions that they may consider — for lack of a better way of putting it — a friendly gesture, which from the standpoint of a woman would make them uncomfortable or feel like harassment."

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner says the Office of Employment Counsel will – when appropriate – require sexual harassment training.

Each Congressional office operates like a fiefdom. Some offices include language in staff manuals that address sexual harassment. But it’s up to each lawmaker to set office policy.

The Senate requires sexual harassment training for staffers — one hour for most staffers; two hours for supervisors. For newly-elected Senators — like their House colleagues — the topic is covered as part of overall ethics training.

Democrat Barbara Boxer of California, who heads the Senate Ethics Committee, says she meets with every new member, walking them through the ethics rule book. Senators are encouraged to come to the committee for extra training on any topic — including sexual harassment. "Anyone who would like that, it's always available," Boxer says. "We have an open door policy."

One Congressional staffer who’s worked in private industry says any human resource manager would be “horrified” by sexual harassment training on Capitol Hill. It’s certainly not the standard most employers follow, according to Deborah Keary, a vice president with the Society of Human Resource Managers, which represents a quarter of a million HR directors around the world. She says the industry norm is consistent training of all employees on sexual harassment at regular intervals — usually annually or every two years.

Keary says training is required by most employers for one reason: lawsuits. "If you can show the judge that you trained everybody but they’re not latching on, at least you tried."

Congress has only been subject to sexual harassment laws since 1995, when there was a public outcry over broad workplace rules members were imposing on everyone else but themselves.

Things are quite different in Sacramento, which is ahead of the curve. Lawmakers take two hours of sexual harassment training every other year. In fact, a third of a lawmaker’s ethics training is devoted to sexual harassment.

Dina Hidalgo, deputy secretary for human resources for the California State Senate, wrote that chamber’s sexual harassment policy. She says the senate's policies are stricter than state law. "Because if we waited until they broke the law," she says, "then we would be in trouble."

Hidalgo says there's a power point presentation, handouts, even role playing. "We make sure that they understand they have not only a moral but a legal obligation to report [harassment]." Assembly members get a similar two-hour session. 

Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier of San Mateo is a former state lawmaker. She feels strongly that the kind of sexual harassment training mandated in Sacramento should be regularly scheduled for lawmakers in Washington. She says, "Frankly, it’s because people get away with it that it continues."

Speier says sexual harassment was a “huge” problem when she served in Sacramento for two decades, starting in the mid-1980s. She cites a poster of a woman’s bare leg in heels to promote the Assembly Speaker’s annual  party. Speier says she marched into Willie Brown’s office, waving the poster signed by women staffers and lawmakers. She says she told the powerful speaker, "This is inappropriate and we should have sexual harassment training."

Speier introduced the 1992 California state law that requires employers to post and distribute information about sexual harassment. Here on Capitol Hill, she’s pursued sexual harassment issues in the military. Now, she says, she’s going to find out how to change rules about training requirements for members on Capitol Hill.