Sexual harassment allegations have flooded the national media since producer Harvey Weinstein was ousted for alleged decades of sexual misconduct in October. Well-known names in entertainment, politics and business have been accused, resulting in resignations, public apologies, and in some cases, denials.
Defining sexual harassment
According to the New York State Department of Human Rights, sexual harassment, in the form of a “hostile environment,” consists of words, signs, jokes, pranks, intimidation or physical violence that are of a sexual nature, or that are directed at an individual because of that person’s gender.
Sexual harassment also consists of any unwanted verbal or physical advances, sexually explicit derogatory statements or sexually discriminatory remarks made by someone in the workplace that are offensive or objectionable to the recipient, cause discomfort or humiliation, or interfere with his or her job performance.
Policies at the local level
“There are personnel rules in the village code that address violence in the workplace,” Sea Cliff Village Administrator Bruce Kennedy said. “This policy addresses sexual harassment and the avenues employees can take to file a complaint.”
Sea Cliff village code prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. Kennedy said that the village adopted the policy during his mayoral administration in 2013, after complaints of sexual harassment surfaced against State Assemblyman Vito J. Lopez, of Brooklyn, in August 2012.
Two women who worked in Lopez’s district office that summer accused the late assemblyman of sexual harassment. He was eventually censured by the Assembly. Lopez died in 2015.
Kennedy explained that adopting a workplace harassment policy would give victims of sexual misconduct the proper channels in which to file their complaints. “[Lopez] was continually harassing staffers, and the complaints were being ignored,” Kennedy said. “The accusers had no avenues to have their complaints addressed.”
The Town of Oyster Bay has a sexual harassment policy in place as part of its non-discrimination and anti-harassment policy. It reads, “The Town … does not permit any form of employee harassment, including sexual harassment … in the work environment. Should an employee be found to have exhibited harassing … behavior in violation of this policy, disciplinary actions up to and including discharge will occur.”
Employees are required to complete a yearly training seminar conducted by the town, which addresses appropriate workplace behavior. Harassment and workplace violence are reviewed in the program, and participants sign a training acknowledgment upon completion.
The policy encourages workers to “be aware of [their] attitudes” and “never ignore instances of sexual harassment.” It also details procedures to follow when filing a sexual harassment complaint.
Rice speaks out
U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat from Garden City, has emerged as one of the most vocal proponents of ending sexual harassment in Congress. She called on Rep. John Conyers, 88, a Democrat from Michigan, to resign after allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against the 52-year congressman and one-time civil rights activist. He stepped down on Dec. 5.
Many of Conyers’s colleagues appeared reluctant, at first, to call on him to resign. He was, his supporters said, an icon, having served in the Korean War, marched during the civil rights movement and helped found the Congressional Black Caucus. But Rice was not among those who were swayed by his past.
“When the recent wave of credible allegations of sexual harassment and assault reached Rep. John Conyers, my colleague in the House and a fellow Democrat, I felt we needed to show that we would no longer allow ourselves or our colleagues to be held to a double standard,” she said in a statement. “If we believe the women, as so many of us say we do, then we can’t just go on serving alongside and working with colleagues who we believe have preyed on women.
“That’s the standard we expect in the media, in entertainment and throughout the private sector, and the standard for public servants should, if anything, be even higher,” she continued. “That doesn’t mean that every politician who faces a single accusation should resign immediately. It means that if we believe the women, we should act accordingly.”
Rice went on to say that she believed the women who accused Sen. Al Franken and Reps. Ruben Kihuen and Blake Farenthold. Franken said at a news conference on Dec. 7 that he would resign “in the coming weeks.”
“I believe and I hope that we’ve made real progress on this issue …,” Rice concluded. “We’ve identified what the standard should be for politicians who violate the public trust by harassing or assaulting women. Now we need to stick to it.”