The Hawaii State Senate has updated its policy on sexual harassment, more than two years after the #MeToo movement made headlines nationally and at home.

The Hawaii House of Representatives updated its policy a year ago. That action followed the March 2018 resignation of former Speaker Joe Souki, who was found responsible for sexually harassing women during his tenure.

A state senator who lobbied for the policy changes expressed satisfaction with her chamber’s revisions.

“It’s a really good step,” said Sen. Laura Thielen. “The ultimate goal is that everybody goes to work and feels valued and not diminished, and that we all get the full human resources opportunity of everybody who works at the Legislature.”

Senator Laura Thielen during a housing hearing at the Capitol.
State Sen. Laura Thielen during a housing hearing at the Capitol earlier this month. She is very pleased with her chamber’s updated policy on sexual harassment. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

A major sticking point for Thielen was that the previous Senate policy did not make explicitly clear that sexual harassment could apply to lobbyists and others who advocate for and against legislative matters. While these third parties, including vendors and contractors, are not employed by the Senate, they nonetheless interact with legislators and staff.

“We senators do have an obligation to take action and protect those people from harassment, just as we have the same obligation to protect our own,” she said.

The updated Senate policy was adopted unanimously by the chamber on Jan. 15, the same day the 2020 session officially opened. The Senate communications office sent out a brief email late that Friday announcing the new policy but said very little about it.

‘Inappropriate Conduct’

The new policy is four pages in length, one page longer than the previous version, and some changes are notable.

In addition to covering third parties, there are several other key changes — including that the policy is now an “anti-harassment” policy rather than a “harassment” policy.

It also applies to “other inappropriate conduct in the workplace.”

The updates define “unlawful harassment” and “unlawful sexual harassment.” The latter category involves “quid pro quo” sexual harassment, where sexual favors are demanded in return for a job benefit “or in return for not imposing a job detriment.”

Reflecting the times, the new policy expands definitions of who might experience unwanted behavior directed toward them.

“Sexual harassment can occur regardless of the gender or gender identity of the perpetrator or the target. Sexual harassment therefore includes both same-sex harassment and opposite-sex harassment.”

As well, “workplace” is defined as extending beyond Capitol grounds and outside normal working hours. Complaints can also be made in good faith, even if they turn out to unsubstantiated.

“However, a maliciously false or made-up complaint is not one that is made in good faith,” the policy reads.

‘Prohibited Conduct’

In another nod to the times, if a belated one, Senate equipment such as communication and computer systems or hardware must be used in compliance with the policy. The word “computer” is not found in the previous policy.

The prohibited conduct also includes the following, some of which but not all was previously addressed:

“offensive or unwelcome verbal behavior such as threats, insults, or derogatory comments based on a protected category; repeated suggestive comments, innuendos or propositions; or sexist, racist, or other remarks about a person or the person’s body, clothing, sexual, or other activities; unwelcome jokes or nicknames based on a protected category; unwelcome terms of endearment”

And this section is among several that are entirely new and reflect a broader recognition of what constitutes harassment:

“Because different people may have different perceptions about what behavior is unwelcome or may potentially violate this policy, members and employees should avoid any conduct that could reasonably be interpreted by others as a potential violation of this policy.”

The new policy also expands the process to report and resolve complaints.

For example, if the person who committed a potential violation is the president of the Senate, the issue should be reported to the Senate vice president and to the Senate Equal Employment Opportunity officer, the latter of whom is the Senate clerk.

An “aggrieved employee” or member seeking remedy may also contact the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or go to court — something the House harassment policy calls for as well.

While similar, the Senate and House policies are not identical. But there is a lot of overlap.

The Workplace Harassment Policy, as the House document is called, now covers lobbyists, state employees or others who are not lawmakers.

An early draft offered no recourse if the House speaker is the person who is accused of harassment. As Civil Beat reported in March 2018, Rachael Wong, former director of the Department of Human Services, felt she had “nowhere to turn” after she says she was sexually harassed by then-Speaker Souki in 2015.

Rachael Wong presser with Dan Gluck, ethiics commission.
Rachael Wong’s ethics complaint against former House Speaker Joseph Souki eventually led to his resignation. She is pictured at a state Ethics Commission press conference in 2018. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The final policy ensures that a victim has alternatives besides the speaker for reporting bad behavior.

Wong is now a co-founder of and adviser to Safe Spaces & Workplaces, a statewide initiative to address and end workplace sexual harassment in Hawaii.

Asked for comment on the new Senate policy, Wong and Karen Tan, also a co-founder as well as CEO of the nonprofit Child & Family Service, called it a “bold step” to adopt a comprehensive policy that covers “all the standard components to create a safe, respectful” work environment.

“They are serving as a model for other organizations and branches of government to go beyond the requirements of the law to clearly define prohibited and required workplace behaviors, including prohibition against retaliation for speaking out against sexual harassment, and a clear reporting process with multiple avenues of complaint,” they said.

Wong and Tan recommended the Senate take the policy “to the next level” by implementing “a more defined mandatory training program to ensure these principles are embedded in the culture and practices of the Senate.”

For her part, Thielen said the evolving news and mores of the day will likely drive future policy revisions.

“I think as we go through these changing times, these policies are always going to need improvement and updates,” she said. “It does not necessarily mean the older policies are bad. It means that we need to always be open to how we operate.”

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