My political consciousness has never known a world where sex scandals weren’t a regular part of the discourse. Some of my earliest memories of politics that extended beyond my hometown are whispered discussions by the adults in the room about Monica and Bill. It wasn’t until I was in college that it began to occur to the nation that maybe the affair wasn’t the primary problem, but the imbalance of power in the relationship. The #MeToo movement hitting politics was only a matter of time.
The explosion of allegations inspired by #MeToo led to a renewed sense of urgency for employers to reiterate harassment policies, and the legislature was no exception to that. The aim was good: encourage reporting of harassment, abuse and assault stemming from the workplace. You can’t get fired in retaliation. The result was female staff feeling less empowered than ever.
The first big issue is that there is no disciplinary body for legislators. Unless a case went to court, the people responsible for handling the situation would be party leadership. As a result, the process becomes inherently political. We all have in-group bias, and it’s difficult to believe a friend and trusted colleague would do something so wrong. How is any staff to trust that an allegation would lead to anything more than a slap on the wrist?
While we cannot ignore issues of legislators abusing the power they hold over staff, they are in no way the only culprits of harassment that staffers regularly face. This is where the problem of at-will employment comes into play on a larger scale.
Here’s the scenario a colleague brought up in training that made us all realize the policy we were working under was useless: Say a lobbyist harasses you, and, as a result of your disclosure, they no longer want to work with your office on an issue your boss is prioritizing. He fires you three days later citing “differences in priorities.” Are you protected?
Or an even simpler one: you accuse a legislator your boss works closely with of sexual misconduct. The next week, your boss fires you because you “aren’t a good fit for the office.” Are you protected?
The answer, it seems, is no. The burden of proof would be on you to demonstrate that you were let go solely because of the allegation.
In many regards, at-will employment in the legislature makes perfect sense. Office fit matters just as much as competence, and legislators need to be able to trust the people they hire. Unfortunately, it makes disclosing harassment and assault in the workplace near impossible to feel safe doing. This doesn’t even begin to cover the issue of gossip surrounding the topic and the fear of being blacklisted.
If legislatures want their staff to feel safe, they need to put better measures in place to help safeguard staff who come forward regarding these abuses of power.
I want to close by saying that this is not meant to be an accusatory piece towards anyone. It’s merely meant to highlight the uniquely rock-and-hard-place situation faced by (mostly female) legislative staff. Most of the men I have worked with are good people. Most of the legislators I have had the good fortune of interacting with have honorably served their state and nation and would never do this to their staff. Most of the lobbyists with whom I have spoken are courteous and kind.
But some are not. And if this movement has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes people who have been good to us have not been good to our sisters. We have to do better.
Kelly Stec is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.