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Q&A with Senator Karen Keiser on legislation combatting sexual harassment in the workplace

Senator Karen Keiser is Chair of the Senate Labor and & Commerce Committee and Vice Chair of the Rules Committee. She sat down with The Wire to discuss sexual harassment in the workplace, the public’s growing awareness, and the three specific bills she is sponsoring to address this issue.  

SB 5996 would prohibit employers from requiring employees to sign non-disclosure agreements having to do with sexual harassment, SB 6471 would develop “model policies” to create safer working environments, and SB 6313 would preserve employee’s rights to file sexual harassment complaints.

These three bills have public hearings today in the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee meeting at 1:30 PM. You can view the hearing here.

Emily Boerger: Tell me about these bills and why they are particularly important in the current social climate.

Senator Karen Keiser: “It’s been pretty obvious for the last several years, and especially in the last nine months, it’s been intensely obvious that we have a real problem that needs to be dealt with when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace. Not that there hasn’t always been a problem, but there’s this thing from eons ago called “consciousness raising” and we have suddenly had our eyes opened and said the “aha moment” is here. Yes, we can deal with sexual harassment in a more forward-thinking and transparent way than we have in the past.

That seems to be something that is underway all over the county, not just in this state. The key here is that it’s a good movement, but it takes policy to make real change that is lasting because movements come and go.

EB: Is sexual harassment a problem in Olympia?

KK: It’s a problem everywhere, including Olympia. The bill that I’ve got, creating model harassment policies, really grew out of my work last summer when the Department of Fish and Wildlife had its “aha moment” of its own. They had several, very serious cases. They brought in a third party to take a look at what was going on and they called it a “toxic environment.”

And then shortly after that, the state lottery had a case and the director resigned. So, state agencies are as much as any other enterprise subject to these problems. But I think the biggest problem we all have had is silence. We’ve just kept it in the closet. We’ve just dealt with it. And we need to talk about it, we need to grapple with it, and we need to change. And that’s what I’m trying to do with these bills.

EB: So, SB 5996 is about prohibiting non-disclosure agreements related to sexual harassment. Is that something that currently holds people back from being able to tell their story?

KK: Yes. Unfortunately in the workplace these days, a lot of people feel that they won’t be hired unless they sign a non-disclosure agreement when they’re hired. And at that point, then they feel like they’re gagged.

They can go to the HR department, but they don’t have a legal standing to go outside of HR to report it to the Human Rights Commission, to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or to anybody else. That’s what I mean by keeping things in the closet because then nothing gets corrected. So this is a very explicit approach to simply saying, “you will have that waiver. You will not be bound by a secrecy agreement when you sign a non-disclosure agreement.”

EB: SB 6471 is about creating “model policies” for a safer work environment. What might those policies look like?

KK: One of the key policies is to have an anonymous complaint approach so that people are safe to make known the problem. Having some sort of anonymous complaint process can at least open the door. Also, having executive leadership engaged in the issue and active in the issue, and certainly not complicit in the issue… those are elements that really show the direction we want to go.

Training is sort of standard process, but personally, I think that is often used as a reduction in responsibility. I think what we really need is a more assertive approach. So that’s kind of the elements that we have in mind.

EB: A lot of this seems like just trying to make sure rules and actions are more clear cut. Right now, the process for addressing sexual harassment seems very muddled.

KK: Oh, it’s totally muddled. There isn’t any consistency. Right now in Seattle, every department in the city has their own HR department and they all have different policies on sexual harassment. I mean, come on folks, get a grip!

EB: What’s the outlook for these bills? How do you think they will progress?

KK: Well we’re having our hearing [today]. We’ll see how that goes. I know there are some concerns with employers’ sense of responsibility and liability perhaps that they want to deal with, but I’ll hear more at the hearings and hopefully we can work out those concerns.

You know, sexual harassment is a loss in productivity for employers as well. And that’s something that we should take very seriously. Because once somebody is in a state of fear, or shame, or reluctance on the job, they’re not productive. And often when the settlement process for a harassment case is completed, it’s the woman who leaves and the man stays. So that’s another piece of this picture. We have many women whose careers have been disrupted; their career paths have been diverted. And they may never get the next shot at the next promotion because of that. So that’s a big picture concern for business I would think as well.

EB: Have you heard support from your colleagues on these bills?

KK: “Yes. I don’t think this is something that is in one camp and not the other. And it’s not one gender either. I’ve got men supportive as well as women. I think a lot of us have just been mulling about, asking ourselves, what can we do? What is possible? Where can we go with this? So, I’m just offering a couple pathways here, and they’re not a complete and total solution, but I think they’re productive and I think something will come of it. Some new law will come of it and we’ll get there.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.