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2018-01-17 / Front Page

Bills would force lawmakers to undergo harassment training

By Peter Galuszka

Two legislators representing Chesterfield have introduced bills that would require all members of the General Assembly and various state staff members to undergo sexual harassment training at least every other year.Del. Roxann RobinsonDel. Roxann Robinson

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-27th District, and state Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-10th District, have introduced bills that would require legislators, full-time staff members and full-time employees of each legislative branch to undergo training by the state Department of Human Resource Management. Robinson’s bill would require training each calendar year; Sturtevant’s bill requires training every other year.

Sturtevant says such a requirement would empower legislators and the staffs of legislative bodies to know that they have rights and can speak out. “It is important that we understand that this is something really important no matter who you are or who you work for,” Sturtevant said.

The bills come after dozens of prominent figures in politics, business, entertainment and the media have come under fire for making unwanted or inappropriate statements or actions of a sexual nature. Robinson said “it is prudent” for the legislative branch of the state government to make its members aware of the problems of sexual harassment. Harassment training has already been prepared for other branches of state government, so it should be easy to make it available for legislators and their staff members, she said.

Underscoring Sturtevant’s and Robinson’s concerns is the seemingly endless news about celebrities who have lost their jobs in recent months for alleged sexual harassment, including Fox News contributor Bill O’Reilly, Democratic U.S. Senator Al Franken, NBC News anchor Matt Lauer and comedian and writer Garrison Keillor.

 “I think very often the news and headlines set the policy agenda,” says Bob Holsworth, a longtime Richmond political analyst. Requiring harassment training “is good practice,” he says, and could help protect the state’s reputation if training and other policies and programs are in place to prevent harassment and provide resolutions if it occurs.

Robinson’s and Sturtevant’s bills come after a shakeup in state politics.

After a Democratic wave election in November, women now hold 38 out of 140 seats in the state Senate and the House of Delegates, the highest proportion yet in bodies traditionally dominated by white men. Following this trend, incoming Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed a cabinet that is majority female.

For years, the issue of sexual harassment in state government has received little public attention.

A turning point came in 2002, when former Virginia House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., a powerful Republican, resigned a week after The Washington Post published a story reporting that he had paid an aide $100,000 to remain silent about “unwelcome sexual advances” by Vance.

The politician apologized, explaining that he was “huggy” by nature.

Human resource experts and lawyers, however, say simply holding harassment training classes isn’t always effective, especially if the main focus is on avoiding liability. It’s more effective, they say, to have clear policies in place to report and investigate accusations.

Lisa Lawrence, a lawyer with Lawrence & Associates, a Richmond-based workplace law firm, says that training only works if management takes it seriously. “If management sits there and rolls its eyes or has training only once a year, it probably won’t stick,” she says.

Sturtevant says he expects the annual training will meet its objectives. If either bill is approved and signed into law, the training courses would start next January.

 

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