After the Legislature adjourned its special session last Tuesday, the Legislative Council decided to form a working group to review the Capitol’s harassment policy.
Certainly, with the revelations of sexual harassment and sexual assault making headlines, it would behoove every organization to review its practices. The issue is pervasive in society; allegations have come not just from the entertainment industry, but also from the business world, media organizations, and government and politics. In fact, the Juneau Empire reports that lawmakers are believed to be investigating an incident that occurred in the Capitol, though policy prohibits anyone from confirming that an investigation is taking place.
Perhaps the most important result of the current self-reflection won’t be stronger anti-harassment policies, but rather a better understanding of the toxic effect that such behavior has on an organization. One of the frequent comments we hear when new allegations come to light is “I didn’t realize it was so bad,” or “I didn’t realize this happens so frequently.”
But the truth of the matter is, especially if you include other issues such as bullying, such behavior is an everyday occurrence in the American workplace. And even in organizations with strong anti-harassment policies, much of it can happen in the gray area, and complaints can be easy to dismiss. Is an allegation legitimate, or is the employee being “too sensitive”? Do actions constitute harassment, or is the manager being “aggressive” or “assertive”?
And, for a large part of the workforce, increased public awareness or stronger corporate policies won’t change the fact that they feel that the only choice available is putting up with harassment or losing a paycheck.
In a recent Voices of the Peninsula piece, Rep. Mike Chenault called for a cultural shift: “This isn’t just about rape and sexual harassment; rather, it is about holding ourselves to a higher standard toward a culture of respect. We have laws governing the most egregious acts such as rape and sexual harassment. We need to end not only the most egregious acts against women; but, also the insensitive and dehumanizing behavior they otherwise are sometimes forced to face as well.”
We agree with that sentiment. Over the past several years, Alaska has placed an emphasis on choosing respect, particularly as it pertains to domestic violence and sexual assault. We are slowly starting to see changes in attitude in our community, and with raised awareness comes the will to make a change.
We’re heartened to see the Legislature take a look at its sexual harassment policy. But the conversation can’t stop there. The only way to effect change on the scale needed is to keep the discussion going, to keep the issue in the public eye and not to simply let the current firestorm come and go, as it has so many times in the past.