Combating Sexual Harassment in Federal Government

In recent weeks, a number of powerful and influential men — including former President George H.W. Bush, MSNBC political analyst Mark Halperin, actor Kevin Spacey, Vox Media Editor Lockhart Steele and Senior Vice President of NPR Michael Oreskes — have been facing new sexual assault and harassment allegations. The growing list of accusations follows the explosive Harvey Weinstein scandal and viral social media campaign, #MeToo, in which survivors shared their experiences of sexual harassment and highlighted the dizzying scope of the problem.

It is clear that sexual harassment in the workplace is not an issue limited to the media industry and Hollywood. According to a recent NBC News and Wall Street Journal poll, nearly half of all working women in the United States say they’ve been subjected to unwanted sexual advances on the job. Sixty-seven percent of men surveyed and 71 percent of women said they believe the practice is widespread, and 41 percent of men surveyed said they had witnessed harassment at their office firsthand.

Women working in government are no exception.

Earlier this month, more than 200 women working in the California Capitol signed a letter alleging rampant sexual misconduct among men in the state legislature and lobbyists. Four female senators recounted their experiences with sexual harassment as part of the #MeToo campaign. In a video posted to her YouTube page, Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) spoke out about the sexual assault she experienced as a young congressional staffer nearly 40 years ago, and stated that sexual misconduct is still a rampant problem on Capitol Hill.

In light of this problem, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has taken steps to examine how to improve agency disciplinary policies and strengthen institutional responses to harassment and assault.

This month, the committee released a report entitled, “Tables of Penalties: Examining Sexual Misconduct in the Federal Workplace and Lax Federal Responses,” detailing multiple case studies of ineffective agency responses to sexual harassment claims in recent years and recommending ways for the federal government to better identify and combat sexual misconduct in the workplace.

The committee’s investigation revealed the following key findings:

  • Most federal agencies operate with no clear definition of sexual misconduct, which makes it “difficult for the federal government to address this problem in a consistent and comprehensive manner.” Without a standardized characterization of sexual harassment and the many forms it might take, agencies may not even know when an infraction has occurred.
  • Broad and vague disciplinary recommendations, inconsistent from one agency to another, can put employees at risk of arbitrary punishment.

“Federal employees deserve a safe work environment, free of predatory behavior,” said committee chair Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). But a huge problem is that dozens of agencies have no Table of Penalties — a list of recommended disciplinary actions for various personnel misconduct, ranging from reprimand to removal — or have tables that are outdated or do not expressly mention sexual offenses.

Tables of Penalties transmit a clear message that misconduct has consequences; ensure that all employees, including supervisors and management, are held to the same standard as other employees; and help supervisors confront unwanted behavior before it grows into a major conduct problem by providing a standard minimum corrective action. Without these guidelines, officials are given little instruction on how to determine the appropriate form of discipline and maintain a safe work environment.

Based on these findings, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee made the following recommendations:

  • All agencies should create a well-defined, up-to-date Table of Penalties to provide a framework for consistent application of disciplinary action.
  • Agencies should also ensure that cases of sexual misconduct are adequately documented and tracked, and focus on better coordination and information sharing between offices.

The reality is that even with laws and strong HR policies in place to protect women from unwanted advances and inappropriate behavior, it can still be incredibly difficult for women to identify and feel comfortable reporting instances of sexual harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), for example, found that only a small fraction of women — between 6 and 13 percent — actually lodge a formal complaint. Only one out of four individuals who experienced harassment spoke to a supervisor, boss, human resources representative or union representative about the sexual misconduct.

Many women have expressed fear of jeopardizing their careers, being accused of lying or facing social or professional retaliation should they choose to speak out.

But by establishing standardized reporting mechanisms and clear guidelines around disciplinary action, government agencies can begin to push back against the sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality of sexual harassment in the workplace. Expanding the definition of sexual misconduct and instituting a clear, transparent process to address harassment claims is a critical step towards improving accountability and protecting employees.

For further reading, check out these timely articles and resources on confronting sexism and harassment in the workplace and elsewhere:

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