Help Wanted: Congress Seeks Sexual Harassment Trainer

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By Chris Opfer

Congress is looking for a lawyer to help lawmakers and their staffers combat sexual harassment in the Capitol.

A House administrative office is currently reviewing bids on a contract to provide mostly in-person harassment training for some 11,000 lawmakers and congressional employees in Washington and district offices. The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer in a request for bids said the training sessions will “focus on creating a more civil workplace.” That includes making employees aware of their rights and the multiple avenues for reporting misconduct, as well as instructing members of Congress and managers about how to identify and prevent harassing behavior.

The move comes in the wake of a wave of sexual harassment allegations against public figures, including members of Congress. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and former Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) have left Congress as a result of harassment claims. Reps. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) have come under fire following revelations that the lawmakers used public money to settle harassment claims by former staffers.

“No one should be subject to sexual harassment in the workplace,” Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who sponsored measures to require training and revamp Congress’s sexual harassment reporting and investigation process, said in a statement following passage of those measures. “The painful stories of harassment we have all heard in the past several months from the media, Hollywood, business, and in Congress, made clear that we needed to both increase our education and training to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as reform the process for reporting and resolving sexual harassment claims.”

The House and Senate in November passed resolutions (H.Res. 630, S.Res. 330) requiring all lawmakers and their staffs to undergo sexual harassment training. A separate measure (H.R. 4924) passed by House lawmakers in a February voice vote would scrap requirements that harassment allegations be kept confidential and eliminate required “cooling off” periods that delay investigations by up to 90 days. It would also ban lawmakers from using taxpayer money to cover sexual harassment settlements.

The House request for bids on the training contract makes clear that trainers aren’t expected to provide legal advice. The trainers won’t handle or investigate sexual harassment complaints.

The training, which is set to start in early April, will include a discussion of a wide spectrum of harassing behavior from “subtle” to “severe,” according to the bid request information. It will also touch on the risk factors for harassment identified by an 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force.

The task force identified several factors that can contribute to workplace harassment, including the lack of diversity in a workforce, cultures in which “high value” employees don’t have to comply with the same rules as others, and situations that involve “significant power disparities” among workers. Much of the #MeToo sexual harassment awareness sparked by allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have centered on public figures using their power and influence to make untoward sexual advances.

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