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National priority to empower & uplift employees will help us improve our work environment

Last week’s online news story on sexual harassment in the Forest Service brought home a national conversation on the growing intolerance for unwanted, inappropriate sexual conduct and all forms of harassment. It gave me a timely opening to share why our national priority to uplift and empower employees is so important and fits naturally into this dialogue.

The Forest Service is fully committed and working very hard to achieve a safe, rewarding and resilient workplace for each employee. Confronting all forms of harassment is a must for uplifting and empowering employees to meet our work environment goals.

Contrary to the news story, the Forest Service has owned up to the existence of harassment. More importantly, we have taken significant steps in recent years to end it — the latest being a stricter anti-harassment policy (released in September 2016) and a newly opened call center a few weeks ago where employees can report harassment without fear. Progress resulting from these actions is clear, but it’s not nearly enough. One case of any kind of harassment remains one too many; and we are seeing more than that. Since implementing our updated policy, we have examined more than 400 allegations. We substantiated 83, including sexual assault — we removed that employee. Further, we recorded 34 cases of sexual harassment — employees were removed, terminated, suspended or received reprimands, depending on offense. Another 51 cases of other forms of harassment were substantiated and disciplinary actions were taken.

The work to eliminate harassment remains paramount — beyond our progress in mandatory training, reporting, investigations and taking disciplinary actions. The work ahead, among other steps, must also center on permanently changing our work culture by uplifting and empowering employees. Every employee possesses the right to a safe, respectful workplace where they feel valued, but it takes all of us to protect that right. So we need to empower employees with the right tools, training and support, so we learn and practice new habits. All employees must share leadership for an inclusive workplace and embrace the responsibility to do the right thing, knowing the Forest Service will back them.  

Further, we must uplift employees — showing how much we care. This is essential, but often overlooked in cases of harassment where healing and recovery can take time. As peers and leaders we need to build a culture that continually affirms and supports employees when they come forward. It is akin to our work to create a safety culture.  

The national priority to uplift and empower employees certainly transcends many other parts of our work. But a critical opportunity is before us right now; we can move to permanently change our agency and accept nothing less than the full embrace of inclusion, equality and fair treatment for every individual. This accomplishment will create a safe, rewarding and resilient work environment for all employees and ensure our success in accomplishing our mission for the American people.

Editor's note: For information on the Forest Service Harrassment Reporting Center click here.

Chief Tooke