Leadership Corner

The Forest Service we ALL deserve

March 15th, 2018 at 4:15PM

A picture of Vicki Christiansen in Forest Service uniform.
USDA Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen

Last week, as I began my tenure as Interim Chief, I shared with you the following observation: We’ve had to face some hard truths about allegations of harassment and retaliation in our agency, even as we stare down some of the biggest land management challenges in our nation’s history.

These issues are not new, they are not limited to California or to Fire Fighting, and we ALL must own the issue and take steps necessary to change this culture. These stories make clear, we need to go beyond policy, procedure, and organizational hierarchy in order to confront cultural issues endemic in the Forest Service. In the coming days and weeks we will use Inside the Forest Service and the Leadership Corner to highlight actions we are taking to bring about change in culture and behaviors, and what you can to be a part and help. 

As some of you might know, the USDA Office of Inspector General posted its Interim Report for Forest Service Initiatives to Address Workplace Misconduct to its website late last week. The information covered in the OIG report pertains specifically to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in Region 5.  

In essence, the report found that “the Forest Service has taken steps to improve its process of handling sexual harassment” but that “the process could be further improved.” The report makes four recommendations for improvements, all of which pertain to using contract or outside federal investigators rather than Forest Service employee investigators.

Although OIG did not find any bias or unfairness in employee investigators, it noted significant mistrust expressed by employees about the objectivity of the process. Therefore, as recommended by OIG, we have agreed to implement mandatory use of contract investigators in Region 5 for a trial period of one year. This change went into effect on March 1. To further demonstrate our commitment to a safe, fair and unbiased investigative process, we are making this policy effective nationwide, and will update when it has gone into effect as soon as we can get the resources under contract.

We are using the OIG report to help guide our actions in taking care of all Forest Service employees who have been harassed. We will hold offenders accountable, and we will continue to improve our work environment to eliminate all forms of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

We as leaders need to recognize that change begins with us. As leaders, we are committed to listening to employees as well as outside advisors, and we are committed to working toward a long-term cultural shift. Moreover, ALL employees must know that they can speak up and speak out, without any fear of retaliation or reprisal, and employees must feel a duty to one another- whenever one of us suffers, ALL of us suffers. This is an important first step to create the Forest Service we all deserve. Our most urgent task is to confront the culture of harassment and retaliation that has hurt our employees and damaged our workplace.

Your input is valuable. Please email comments, questions and suggestions to me at Forest Service Employee Feedback.

I hope you will all join me, standing together against harassment.