VT Executive Branch Self-Mandates Sexual Violence Training

Commissioner Beth Fastiggi

VERMONT BIZ

Commissioner Beth Fastiggi

By KENZO OKAZAKI

MONTPELIER– After the revelations of sexual misconduct by such public figures as Al Franken, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer, the #metoo movement continues to carry momentum, prompting action to prevent sexual harassment. On Dec. 22, Vt. Gov. Phil Scott, updated his office’s ethics policy to require executive branch employees to complete sexual harassment prevention training by the end of 2018.

Previously, training was optional and only accessible online. The new mandate requires in-class training. The Vermont Digger published that since 2014, Vermont has investigated 52 cases of sexual harassment reported by state employees.

“What we’ve seen and heard about the prevalence of harassment and assault from many across the country is disappointing, and it is clear we must all take a strong stand against this abuse,” Scott said in a statement last month.

Beth Fastiggi, the Vermont Department of Human Resources Commissioner, is optimistic that this change in policy will have its desired effect. “The updated Executive Code of Ethics and the mandate to provide sexual harassment training will go a long way towards creating a workplace culture of respect, dignity and professionalism,” she said.

Although Commissioner Fastiggi recognizes that training on the issue may lead to an uptick in complaints, she commented that this was acceptable “if it signals that employees are better educated on the subject matter and that leadership will not tolerate inappropriate behavior at work.”

The Governor’s directive parallels a surge of local responses to sexual assault by elected officials across the country. A similar order was made by Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser who, only a few days prior to Scott, mandated that 30,000 city employees undergo online sexual harassment prevention training. Although this order covers more government employees than Scott’s initiative, Vermont’s in-class approach may prove to be more influential than online sessions.

Deborah Katz is quoted in a recent Washington Post article on the matter citing research that online prevention training is ineffective because it may make “harassers more inclined to harass” in the sense that it provides a “how- to” guide on harassment. Fastiggi says that Vermont has taken the in-classroom route as opposed to approaches like Bowser’s “because the in-classroom experience lends itself to rich discussion and the ability for participants to ask questions of presenters.”

The Governor’s order is not the only action that Vermont’s government is taking to implement sexual harassment training. Vermont Business Magazine reported that on Jan. 9, Vermont’s House of Representatives received sexual harassment training. The Speaker of the House also made clear their intent to make Vermont’s sexual harassment policies the “gold standard” by ensuring their continual improvement.

The Vermont Senate also received a briefing on its sexual harassment policy. Although noted by many officials as an important discussion, Seven Days reported that the issue of sexual harassment has ignited some tension in the Senate. Senator Dick Sears told Seven Days that the confidentiality with which cases are treated is an apt measure to protect victims, but it is unfair to the senators because any one of them could appear culpable.

Despite the problems that Vermont and other states will face going forward in combating sexual harassment within government, officials have recognized the success of the #metoo movement in igniting this policy change.

Vermont Senator Mollie Burke (D), the chair of the sexual harassment panel in Vt.’s House of Representatives, told WCAX3 that the #metoo movement has been important in empowering victims of sexual harassment, and that policy should facilitate their ability to come forward. She added that she is hopeful that the House of Representatives will be able to take such action.

Commissioner Fastiggi also recognized the impact of the #metoo movement. “The movement and surrounding discussions caused us to review our policies and refresh our training so that it was most effective,” she said.

With such high-profile allegations as those leveled against the aforementioned U.S. Senator Al Franken, and the 52 cases of harassment reported by Vermont state employees, it is timely for state governments to take measures aimed at addressing this issue. When briefing the House of Representatives, legislative council Katie McLinn emphasized that sexual harassment “is a form of sex discrimination.” Taking steps to prevent sexual harassment may help to restore faith that those at the highest levels of government do not participate in discrimination and as such it will not be reflected in their legislation or governance.

Fastiggi concluded that there will be more done in the future and that a “culture of respect starts at the top.” She indicated that because uncivil behavior can lead to harassment, the state training center will make Civility in the Workplace training, which “focuses on work- place etiquette, diversity awareness and cultural sensitivity,” available to all state employees within the next year.

Fastiggi is con dent that “the combination of sexual harassment awareness and prevention training and workplace civility training will have a significant and positive impact on workplace culture in Vermont state government.” However, It is unclear what future action state governments plan to take in addressing sexual harassment not related to government employees. The governor’s office did not respond for comment.

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VT Executive Branch Self-Mandates Sexual Violence Training