Wednesday, December 13, 2017

S.C. House sexual harassment policy outlines a range of misconduct, doesn't specify reporting window

The guidelines protect all House employees "regardless of gender"

Posted by Adam Manno on Wed, Dec 13, 2017 at 10:01 AM

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The South Carolina House of Representatives "no harassment" policy lists the kind of conduct not allowed from its employees with painstaking detail, often going beyond state and federal law.

The legislative chamber responded to a Freedom of Information Act request by CP for its sexual harassment policy. The "Guidelines on Identifying, Reporting, and Addressing Harassment in the Workplace" point to the House Speaker, clerk, or chair of the Operations and Management Committee as the main point of contact for any complaints, as previously clarified by House clerk Charles Reid.

The policy defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome, direct or indirect, verbal or physical conduct" that includes: offensive remarks, jokes, or slurs; sexually explicit or graphic images or communications; offensive sexual advances or propositions; unwelcomed and intentional touching; and acts of aggression, intimidation, hostility or threats.

Complaints may be reported verbally or written down.

“The Speaker of the House will order an investigation of any report and will take prompt, appropriate remedial action based upon the totality of the circumstance and the record as a whole," according to the document, published below in its entirety. "Any investigation will be done as to protect the confidentiality of persons reporting..."

Hostile environment harassment, in which an employee's work environment is disturbed by remarks or advances, and quid pro quo harassment, where an employer promises benefits contingent upon sexual favors, are both represented in the text. This goes beyond language established in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the South Carolina Human Affairs Law, which protect employees from discrimination against characteristics such as race, color, religion, and sex, but do not necessarily spell out what types of conduct qualify as discrimination.

The Speaker, the House Ethics Committee, and even the entire membership of the lower chamber may participate in deciding the appropriate disciplinary action if an investigation concludes harassment took place. Such action may include "termination from employment."

Former Rep. Edward Southard resigned from office in April 2016 days after learning that a page filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. He was later ordered to pay a $2,000 fine by the House Ethics Committee. An analysis by The State found that South Carolina has paid out more than $13 million to settle claims of sexual harassment, assault, rape, and negligence against state and local employees.

Complaints have also been filed against two other House members in the past five years, according to information obtained from the CP's FOIA request.

The House guidelines apply to lawmakers, supervisors, managers, and employees, but they go as far as covering non-employees in their contacts with House employees.

"It’s a good policy," says Columbia-based labor attorney Malissa Burnette. "It actually is more detailed and explicit than a lot of them that I’ve seen employees have.

"This one is longer than most of them, I’d say, and it goes into more detail," Burnette added. "For example, on the second page where it spells out 'regardless of the gender,' I hardly ever see that, but that’s good to put in there. You could interpret that to be male, female, or even same-sex, which it ought to be."

Administrative procedures for handling a sexual harassment claim in the state of South Carolina require the complainant to file a charge of discrimination with the state's Human Affairs Commission. Employees have 180 days to do this.

The House policy does not specify a time limit for when to report allegations of misconduct for internal investigation. However, the deadline for an employee to report such allegations to the state Human Affairs Commission remains the same.

Burnette often warns people against putting their full trust on their bosses.

"A lot of employees rely on the employer's policy," she said. "[Employers] don’t have to tell employees anything. And I’ve seen employers try to drag investigation out beyond the time for an employee to file with the Human Affairs Commission."

PDF S.C. House "No Harassment" Policy
Courtesy of the South Carolina House of Representatives

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