When it comes to reporting sexual harassment, Mississippi has no standard process for making complaints, investigating claims or seeking redress for victims.
News that the resignation of 22-year veteran Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, came after multiple complaints of sexual harassment shook the capital city on Monday, sparking questions about how harassment allegations in state government are handled.
Inside the Capitol, House leadership handles sexual harassment allegations differently than Senate leadership. Both those bodies handle harassment claims independently of the state personnel board, which oversees complaints from 129 state agencies and departments.
Allegations of harassment in both the House and Senate, according to written rules for both chambers, are ultimately handled by legislative leaders themselves – all of whom, currently, are men.
No sexual harassment complaint has been filed in the Senate since at least 2012, a spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said. No senator or current Senate staffer can recall or find evidence of a sexual harassment complaint ever being filed in the Senate.
Likewise, no “formal sexual harassment complaints” have been filed in the House since 2012, Speaker Philip Gunn said on Tuesday.
The policy in the House of Representatives explicitly prohibits “discrimination or harassment” by any person involved in the business of the House. The policy defines sexual harassment as remarks, threats, innuendos, gestures, physical contact, display, or circulation of written or electronic materials, pictures, or objects of a sexual nature.
The process by which complaints are filed in the House begins with a victim notifying a supervisor, the House clerk, or Speaker Pro Tempore verbally or in writing. The allegations “will be handled in a confidential manner to the extent possible,” according to the House rules.
If House leadership determines harassment or discrimination occurs, immediate corrective or disciplinary action is taken. If a state representative is found to violate the policy, the House Ethics committee determines how to discipline members. The House Management committee, specifically, disciplines employees.
Ethics chairman Rep. Andy Gipson, R-Braxton, told Mississippi Today that all members are required to take mandatory annual sexual harassment training. Gipson said the committee is only involved when an investigation is necessary.
Gunn in a Tuesday statement said the House “discrimination and harassment policy” was revised in 2013 under his leadership.
“We are additionally proactive when it comes to looking into potential sexual harassment which we pursue to the extent possible to determine if there exist any credible allegations,” Gunn said in a statement Tuesday.
In the Senate, any citizen, whether a legislative staffer or not, may file a complaint, although there is no written process by which complaints are considered as there is in the House.
Complaints in the Senate are handled by the Senate Rules committee, after being first filed to Secretary of the Senate Liz Welch or Sen. Terry Burton, chairman of the Rules committee.
The only passage written in the Senate rules that seemingly considers the complaint process reads: “The Rules Committee shall have jurisdiction over any questions concerning improper or unethical conduct by members of the Senate.”
“We’d deal with it as we go,” Burton said. “We might want to put together a subcommittee. I hate to get into what-ifs and conjecture because we just haven’t plowed that ground before. What I’m telling you is we might change up the procedure if someone were to file a complaint.”
The Legislature is not part of the state personnel board, which oversees 129 agencies. Those employees have a more defined process for filing complaints.
“Workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, is a disciplinary matter. The disciplinary offenses outlined for state employees specifically include an offense for creating a hostile work environment or participating in workplace harassment and clearly state that an agency may choose to reprimand, demote, suspend without pay, or terminate an employee for committing such an offense,” said personnel board spokeswoman Brittany Frederick in email.
Under the personnel board’s policy, harassment should be immediately reported to management. One option includes a formal process starting with the employee’s immediate supervisor and goes as high up the chain of command as needed.
If the harasser is in the chain of command, the victim can skip to the next person in the chain. If the employee is unsatisfied with the outcome, an appeal can be made to an appeals board. In the event the harasser is an agency director, the employer can skip the grievance process and go directly to the appeals board.
Frederick points to an executive order Gov. Phil Bryant signed in January 2017 that requires all employees to attend sexual harassment awareness and prevention training.
Lisa Ross, an attorney in Jackson who practices employment law said despite the absence of state statutes, victims can also enlist the help of federal courts.
Depending on whether the employer is private or government agency, victims of harassment can file a claim under Title VII, which prohibits certain kinds of discrimination in the workplace, or file a federal lawsuit on the grounds their constitutional rights were violated.
Under Title VII, victims have 180 days from date of the harassment or from the date of the adverse action on their claim of harassment. The law is also designed to protect people from retaliating if they file a claim. Ross said if an employer takes swift and immediate action to address a harassment claim that relieves them of liability, which leads many employers to initiate an investigation of a sexual harassment claim.
Ross said Mississippi should follow the lead of several states that have adopted statutes that mirror the federal Title VII laws, but give victims more time to report harassment.
“Lawmakers on High Street have never thought to protect women in the workplace by enacting a statute under Mississippi law,” Ross said. “We need some movement in the Legislature on that.”