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Bernie Sanders Says His Campaign's New Sexual Misconduct Policy Is the 'Gold Standard'

Here's what experts say about best practices to prevent sexual harassment on the campaign trail.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall at the Fort Museum on May 4th, 2019, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a town hall at the Fort Museum on May 4th, 2019, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Charges of sexism have followed Senator Bernie Sanders' (I-Vermont) campaign from 2016 to 2020. Now, the candidate has released a 17-page document outlining new guidelines for ending sexual misconduct and harassment within his workplace. The policies represent the "gold standard for what we should be doing," Sanders told the Guardian.

The document, first obtained by the Guardian, is more of a blueprint than a policy. According to the Sanders campaign, two human resources firms helped draft the recommendations with input from 2016 staff. The document focuses on diversity in hiring, systems to handle reports of sexual misconduct, and other structures to make the workplace more inclusive—all policies that former Sanders staffers said were missing during the 2016 campaign.

The senator was forced to address complaints of sexual violence and harassment after a New York Times investigation revealed rampant sexism on the campaign trail: Women said they were routinely paid less, touched inappropriately by other staffers, and received little support in their white male-dominated work environment.

"We will do better next time," Sanders said in his apology on CNN last year. Those who helped create the document say this policy is a good start.

Here's what the research says about sexual harassment on the campaign trail.

Half of Women in the Political Campaign Industry Have Experienced Harassment

According to a survey from the trade magazine Campaigns & Elections, nearly half of female political consultants have experienced sexual harassment at work. Overall, the majority of people in the industry say the problem is widespread: In the same poll, two-thirds of campaign and political staffers said they "witnessed or encountered" sexism in the industry at the start of the 2020 cycle. In a 2018 Politico feature, dozens of female political operatives said they were repeatedly shut out from jobs and promotions due to sexism—all while the industry hailed the "year of the woman."

Like start-ups, political campaigns—which employ young people with limited and temporary work experience—operate in workplaces with many risk factors for sexual misconduct. "Campaigns are frenetic, dynamic, and tumultuous," the Sanders campaign's document reads. "Campaign culture has historically failed to hold staff accountable for harassment, toxic behavior and incidents of sexual misconduct, often fueled by traditional leadership structures that tend to be insular and disproportionately white and male-dominated."

Research Suggests Hiring Practices Can Help

In the past, many campaigns have forgone HR altogether. But the research on management shows it's in a company's best interest to remove high-performing employees who harass others. Studies suggest more permanent remedies, such as adding more structure to eliminate pro-male bias or keeping at least two women in the hiring pool. (Researchers have found that a solitary female finalist rarely has a chance.)

As Vox has reported, HR campaign experts also push policies that address legal gray areas and consent in the workplace, instead of simply training employees to avoid liability. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's task force on workplace harassment recommends this too. The best policies hold those accused of harassment responsible, allocating time and resources to complaints, and address workplace culture from the top.

Sanders' plan offers concrete recommendations along these lines, including vetting new hires, creating a written code of conduct and sexual harassment policy, providing multiple channels for reporting harassment, and using an objective third party to investigate these reports.

HR Experts Say the 2020 Candidates Need Better Sexual Harassment Training

Recent allegations underscore the need to eliminate campaign sexual harassment ahead of 2020, including several women who accused Joe Biden of touching them inappropriately. They've also spawned a cottage industry of consulting firms—including one run by former staffers on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign—that want to help Democratic candidates avoid the last cycle's mistakes. "It's clear that existing campaign policies and practices have failed to root out the problem," former Clinton staffer Dallas Thompson said during the launch of her HR consulting firm, Bright Compass, in March.

While Sanders addresses many of these issues in his policy, he's hardly the only one: Sexual harassment on the campaign trail is now a significant 2020 concern. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who's sponsored major sexual harassment legislation for Congress, told BuzzFeed News that her campaign has "strong guidelines and policies in place"; Senator Kirsten Gillibrand hired a top HR expert; and representatives for senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren also emphasized similar efforts in their campaigns.