Last year, New Hampshire House leadership had trouble getting state representatives to even acknowledge the institution’s anti-harassment policies — let alone attend training on the issue.
But on Wednesday, about 100 legislators – or a quarter of the 400-member House of Representatives – showed up for just such a training session developed by the Council of State Governments and designed specifically for members of the New Hampshire legislature.
This was the second official anti-harassment training offered to legislators this year, following a sparsely attended session led by state officials in January. A group of Republican lawmakers also organized their own training, which was initially unsanctioned but later approved by House leadership, as reported by InDepthNH.
Such training was made mandatory by the House at the outset of this legislative session, though the penalty for noncompliance has been unclear. The most recent legislative calendar warned that lawmakers who do not attend anti-harassment training will have their names published in a future edition of the House calendar, but officials plan to hold off on publishing those names until at least one more round of training is offered, likely sometime early next year.
Among the attorneys leading Wednesday’s presentation was former Obama administration official Tina Tchen, who helped to launch the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to address sexual harassment. Buckley Law Firm, which led the training, also held a separate training session specifically for legislative staffers earlier this week.
The presentation from Buckley echoed many of the same themes covered in earlier harassment training, but several members said they found this one to be more specifically tailored to the situations they would find themselves in as legislators.
“I think it’s much more directed at the audience that’s here, and it feels more like situations you might really run into,” said Rep. Edith Tucker, a Democrat from Randolph.
Those situational examples included guidance on how legislators should handle themselves while interacting with fellow lawmakers, legislative staff, lobbyists and the press.
The presentation was peppered with lots of questions from lawmakers in attendance: Where is the line between a friendly greeting in the form of a hug and a greeting that qualifies as sexual harassment? How careful should lawmakers be about their behavior in social situations with people who aren’t legislative peers?
And, another lawmaker wondered, why did all of the hypothetical examples seem to involve men as perpetrators? (On that last point, the trainers said they tried to make several of the examples gender neutral, and acknowledged that harassment can be committed by members of any gender, to members of any gender.)
In response to other situational questions, the Buckley trainers advised lawmakers to be mindful of the context around their interactions — but above all, to be mindful of the power they hold, simply by virtue of being legislators, over lots of different people they might interact with.
“Power isn’t just direct supervisory authority — that we understand, when someone is the manager, and someone is the staff person,” Tchen explained. “Especially in politics, it’s also about influence.”
The presentation drew mixed reviews from the lawmakers in attendance. Rep. Timothy Egan, a Democrat from Sugar Hill, said he was happy to attend despite having gone through anti-harassment training before.
“I always follow the logic of, the minute you think you know everything, you haven’t learned anything,” Egan said. “So even though I’ve had harassment training by being part of a university and having to deal with students, it’s always important to keep dealing with things because as time goes on, you never really know what you do that someone might find offensive, even though you don’t think you are being offensive.“
Others were less satisfied with the content of Wednesday’s presentation. Several lawmakers declined to be interviewed about their thoughts on the training.
Rep. Henry Parkhurst, meanwhile, lamented that the training didn’t seem to put enough emphasis on the possibility of false accusations.
“What happens to the poor guy — man or woman, I should say, man or woman — who's falsely accused, their careers are ruined, families are divorced, and then the person says you know I was only joking, he never did that, she never did that,” said Parkhurst, a Democrat from Winchester. “How about them?”
For his part, Parkhurst added that he’s taken the precaution of avoiding being in an elevator alone with a member of the opposite sex to avoid any potential for accusations of impropriety.
“I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t dare to get on an elevator if there’s a woman on there, I will get off and wait for the next car,” Parkhurst said. “Because the stain of accusation, even through cremation, cannot be erased from your name.”
The trainers told the group that false accusations, according to available research, are exceedingly rare. They also emphasized that workplace harassment is likely underreported, given that people who do speak up about the issue can put their jobs and personal well-being at risk. They also advised lawmakers to avoid hard line rules about meeting alone with members of the opposite sex, because that could be construed as discriminatory if it deprives certain groups of people out of opportunities for important professional conversations.
But the trainers weren’t the only ones trying to educate lawmakers on the nuances of harassment – at times, legislators themselves stepped forward to offer their own guidance to their peers.
At one point in the training, the group was shown a fictional video in which a male lawmaker makes increasingly inappropriate advances toward a woman who’s interviewing him — complimenting her appearance, suggesting they go out to dinner, touching her knee — as the woman grows visibly uncomfortable.
After the scene wrapped up, several lawmakers spoke up to ask why the woman didn’t do more to put a check on the man’s advances. Across the room, another lawmaker raised his hand to offer a response.
"That woman did everything she could to send a message," Rep. Ryan Buchanan, a Democrat from Concord, said. "At what point do we go, she did the right thing, he was the aggressor? Why are we blaming the victim?"
Buchanan also noted that woman in the scene could have been afraid of making the man angry because of the potential for professional harm.
"Everyone, especially I would say men, need to take responsibility for their actions and not sit there and try to pass the buck onto the person they harassed," he added.
Those remarks earned Buchanan a round of applause.