Opinion: Being proactive on sexual harassment

4:20 p.m Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 Opinion

Almost every day it seems, the nation convulses as another accusation surfaces of sexual harassment, or other inappropriate behavior by men in high places.

Given that the allegations – at least up to now — have been concentrated in the media and political ecosystems, it is encouraging and altogether appropriate that the Georgia General Assembly is looking inward at its official mechanism for addressing sexual misconduct by lawmakers. Such a commonsense strategy of review-and-revise is no doubt being considered by, if not already underway, within many businesses, government agencies and other entities.

Simply put, the days when sexual misconduct was not taken seriously should be over by now. That it’s persisted as long as it has reflects dimly on an America that has made considerable strides toward reducing sexism and promoting gender equality. But this unacceptable behavior is nowhere near extinct, as of yet.

Today’s seemingly endless conveyor belt of new allegations rising to the public surface is forcing society to see anew and, hopefully, confront such behavior and any environment that enables it.

So the Georgia Legislature is to be commended for proactively moving to review its procedures governing elected officials. In so doing, they place upon themselves the obligation to do substantially more than merely offer lip service and tepid, generic condemnation of abusive behavior. If the review finds shortcomings, state lawmakers should take serious steps where warranted to strengthen safeguards and procedures for both staving off sexual harassment and properly handling cases that occur.

During a recent sit-down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Editorial Board where he was asked about sexual harassment at the state capitol, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said, “I can assure you that if those issues surface, they’ll be dealt with in a very serious way.” “Anyone that is in a position of responsibility has to be aware that’s a very serious issue and has to be approached that way.”

Ralston and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle recently announced that a special subcommittee of the Legislative Services Committee is examining current policies on sexual harassment.

That’s a decent start, as far as it goes. We would urge lawmakers to treat the subcommittee as a serious tool, not a public relations tactic intended to assuage public concern by offering up only frilly window-dressing in hopes of camouflaging any outbreaks of what is a serious problem — one that’s battering lives and careers nationwide of both accusers and the accused.

Any doubters should recall the considerable damage done to the Legislature’s reputation when then-House Speaker Glenn Richardson resigned in 2009 after being accused by his ex-wife of having an affair with a lobbyist. Today’s sexual harassment policies followed that episode.

One early, big misstep could lead reasonably astute observers to wonder just how serious Georgia’s legislators are about all this. In a time when more women are raising both accusations and widespread suspicions about sexual misconduct and institutions that inadequately respond to it, Georgia’s bipartisan subcommittee has only one woman among its six members.

That’s tone-deaf at best, and insensitive and wrong-headed at worst. If the subcommittee’s work product is received skeptically in some quarters, lawmakers should not wonder why.

They could have done much better, and should do so at the earliest opportunity, even if that takes expanding the subcommittee to make the male-female ratio much more equitable. Fairness and earnestness cry out for no less.

And, yes, we make that assertion knowing full well that the sole woman member, House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, is a strong force in the Legislature and fully capable of standing up to whatever might need to be stared-down. She shouldn’t have to do it as the only woman in the room, is our point.

That all said, to their credit, lawmakers have hired an employment-law attorney to review the Legislature’s policies and make needed recommendations. Seeking an outside review and counsel is a good, substantial move.

Legislative leaders gave themselves sound advice in a joint statement that was updated on December 8. It reads in part: “Lt. Governor Cagle and Speaker Ralston are committed to ensuring the Georgia General Assembly is a safe and supportive work environment.

“Like many workplaces, the General Assembly maintains a zero-tolerance policy to strictly prohibit inappropriate conduct or harassment. These policies direct the rules of our two legislative chambers, which both uphold the strongest standards for ethical conduct.”

That is a simple, commonsense standard. Hewing to it will hopefully prevent future sexual harassment and resulting tumult at the Gold Dome.