As reports of sexual harassment allegations continue coming out across the country, the Texas House of Representatives is updating its own policies.
The Committee on House Administration adopted a new set of policies that defines sexual assault, requires training of members, employees and interns and outlines an internal complaint process. It applies to all members, employees and interns of the Texas House of Representatives.
Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said she hopes it encourages people to trust the system.
“We know that one of the primary reasons that people, and often times it is women, don’t report instances of harassment or assault is because they’re not confident in the system,” Howard said.
The policy defines sexual harassment as “an unwelcome sexual advance, a request for a sexual favor or any other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” It also outlines several instances of unwelcome actions that could meet the definition of sexual harassment, such as sexual pranks, repeatedly standing too close to or intentionally brushing up against a person or repeatedly asking a person to socialize during off-duty hours when the person has said no or has indicated they’re not interested.
Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the Committee on House Administration, said in his nine years serving within that role, “there have been a few complaints, but very few.”
“What’s happened in the past, we’ve investigated it,” he said. “We’ve talked to not only to the person that complained, but addressed it with the people the complaint was against to determine if there really was an issue. If there was an issue, then we tried to resolve it between those two if possible.”
Geren says they’ve been able to resolve matters between the two people in the few times over his nine years handling these issues.
Members, employees and interns of the Texas House are required to complete a sexual harassment training by January 2018 and will have to be taken again every two years. Records of who has finished the training will be documented and available to the public.
“That’s one step toward giving some assurance that we can ensure members will also participate in the training that we’re requiring of everybody else,” Howard said.
A complaint can be filed through the manager of the House Payroll/Personnel Department against employee or intern alleged to have violated the policy. If the Committee on House Administration’s chair is the alleged harasser or is perceived to have a bias in the matter, the complaint can be pursued through the vice-chair of the committee.
People also have a right to file a complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the Texas Workforce Commission or the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if they don’t decide to go through the internal process. The policy protects individuals who report sexual harassment in good faith, even if the investigation reveals no sexual harassment has taken place.
Starting January 2018, an employee assistance program will also be available for people who work in the Texas House. It provides counseling for victims of sexual harassment and can serve as a third-party resource without directly raising the issue with members or staff of the House.
“Everyone’s different and it needs to be handled that way,” Geren said. “Personalities are different and it has to be handled that way. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always had a female on my staff in case a female is uncomfortable coming to me.”
Employees can be disciplined or terminated if found in violation of the policy when the investigation is complete. In order for House members to be disciplined, the full House has to decide on it. Lawmakers can be expelled with a two-thirds vote.
Geren said while it’s not a perfect policy, lawmakers will continue working to improve it. He’s asked House Speaker Joe Straus to appoint a work group to study the policy over the next year and come up with additional recommendations going into 2019.
As of now, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has tasked Senate Administration Committee Chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst with heading a committee that will review the chamber’s current procedures to ensure they’re updated and protect employees.