Candidates for the top posts in state government are promising changes following an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution into how sexual harassment complaints by state employees are handled.
With just over six weeks until Election Day, the AJC asked the major candidates for governor and lieutenant governor if they intended to introduce legislation or alter the state’s policies toward investigating sexual harassment complaints. Each responded with changes they say they would either make by executive action, or seek through legislative fixes, or accomplish by a mixture of both.
“As a husband, father, and businessman, Brian Kemp believes that unlawful harassment and retaliation for unlawful harassment claims are unacceptable and should not be tolerated in the workplace,” said Ryan Mahoney, spokesman for the Republican gubernatorial candidate and current Georgia secretary of state.
If Kemp is elected, Mahoney said, on his first day in office he would issue an executive order overhauling the state’s sexual harassment training program and designating the state inspector general as the “ultimate recipient and repository for unlawful harassment claims.”
Currently, the state allows individual departments and agencies to investigate sexual harassment complaints without oversight. This method has produced disparate treatment for victims and perpetrators, the AJC found.
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In fact, while state officials have defended giving departments latitude to address complaints to fit their “culture and other business needs,” no government official has any idea how complaints are handled across the government — or even how many there are.
Using open records request, the AJC found more than 200 complaints from 18 executive agencies. Some agencies say they are still working to provide the requested records.
Mahoney said Kemp’s plan would create a “central review committee” for all claims. The inspector general’s new role would give employees a path “outside of the supervisory chain” of their own department.
“It does not mean that all claims would originate or be adjudicated there,” he said. “The aim would be to have multiple paths for investigation and resolution of claims.”
For her part, Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams had reform on her mind even before the AJC investigation, with a pledge to rename the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity as the Georgia Commission on Human Rights, giving it authority to oversee investigations into harassment of Georgia workers “who do not fall under federal purview.”
That could include some private employers — such as businesses with fewer than 15 employees — that are not under jurisdiction of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Broad reforms proposed by Abrams, affecting workers in the private sector as well as state government, would require legislative approval.
For state workers, Abrams said victims need a variety of ways to lodge a complaint.
“The state needs to take a more coordinated effort, which can mean a centralized body for investigations. It can also mean centralized training of leadership and supervisors as well as communication tools on harassment policies that are provided to agencies,” she said. “I am the only candidate for governor who can be trusted to prioritize those advances to protect state employees from any type of harassment, and institute a regular feedback loop directly between the governor’s office and agency heads.”
Rebecca Gill, director of the Women’s Research Institute of Nevada at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said it is wise to place some distance between the agency where the alleged harassment took place and the office charged with investigating it. When an agency is investigating itself, investigators may well know the accused harasser personally, she said.
“That’s a problem,” she said. “It sends the victim a message that if they are going to complain, they are probably going to have to complain to someone who is friends with that person or to someone who has some interest in protecting the organization.”
For his part, Gov. Nathan Deal is satisfied the state has the procedures in place to address sexual harassment in the executive branch, according to statements to the AJC from his communications team. Even if he desired to make changes, it is unlikely he’d have time to get them in place before handing the reins to his successor in January.
While Georgia’s next governor will have broad powers to institute reform, she or he likely will need some legislative help, and both major candidates for lieutenant governor are on record supporting reform. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate while it is in session and can steer legislation through the chamber’s committee system.
“Georgia would benefit from utilizing best practices in the business world to address claims of sexual harassment reported by state employees,” Sarah Riggs Amico, Democratic nominee and chairwoman of a Marietta-based transportation company, said in a statement to the newspaper.
Amico said the state should standardize how it responds to sexual harassment complaints, beef up training and communicate from the top levels of
government “a culture in which sexual harassment is not tolerated.”
Geoff Duncan, a former state representative and the Republican nominee, plans to unveil later this month a detailed plan to overhaul how the state addresses sexual harassment complaints. Part of the plan will include consolidation of the reporting and monitoring of complaints through the state attorney general’s office.
“This will include a hotline for reporting of abuse and personnel to help guide victims through the process of filing a complaint and making sure it receives compassionate and appropriate consideration by the agency involved,” said Dan McLagan, Duncan’s spokesman.
“As Georgia’s next lieutenant governor, there will be zero tolerance for any mistreatment of women under the Gold Dome or of state employees,” Duncan said.