Leadership Corner

Sexual harassment survey results identify areas for improvement

January 26th, 2018 at 11:00AM

Robert Velasco, Acting Deputy Chief Business Operations

This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General released the results of a survey of Forest Service employees in Region 5. The survey focused on employees’ perceptions of sexual harassment in their work environment. In late May 2017, OIG sent a survey to all 4,810 full- and part-time employees within Region 5. By the time the survey closed on June 23, 2017, 1,907, or 39 percent, of Region 5 employees completed the survey. Participating employees included a range of roles, tenure, gender and ethnicities. Enclosed is a  link to the survey. I encourage you to take a look at the results.

As a learning organization, we value the OIG survey and will use the results to further inform our collective understanding and steps for improving the quality of our work environment. The survey was given in one region and here is what we have garnered from our examination of the data. It tells us that, similar to other parts of the country, Forest Service employees report a variety of harassing and bullying behaviors in the workplace. In this survey, about 4 percent of respondents said they had personally experienced harassment but only 45 percent of respondents who experienced harassment reported it. Most of the harassment was verbal rather than physical and happened while employees were on duty. Further, employees who stated that they experienced harassment report it happened multiple times over their tenure in the organization. I want you to know how we are addressing the perceptions identified in the report.

These results identify areas where we can continue to improve. We were encouraged to see in the survey results that a large majority of Region 5 employees knew about the new anti-harassment policy as well the steps for reporting sexual harassment. As we reflect on the survey results, we are sharing highlights of recent steps we have taken nationally, as well as where we are headed:

Published amended, anti-harassment policy (Sept. 2016): The updated policy is among the strictest anti-harassment policies in government. It provides clear definitions of all forms/types of harassment, details reporting requirements and procedures, requires that every report of harassment be appropriately investigated and establishes processes. This ensures accountability while promoting confidentiality and protection from retaliation.

Added misconduct investigations capacity: Sexual harassment is a particularly egregious form of harassment. The Forest Service takes reports of sexual harassment seriously and has committed to conducting a formal misconduct investigation, by a credentialed/certified investigator, for every reported incident. In order to meet our commitment, we added more capacity through a contract for these critical services.

Opened the Harassment Reporting Center (November 2017): The Forest Service Harassment Reporting Center is a single office dedicated to receiving all reports of all types of harassment. The Harassment Reporting Center is open seven days a week from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern. Representatives can be reached by calling the toll-free number: (844) 815-8943. It is operated by skilled and trained, contracted representatives who are available to confidentially take reports of harassment from employees, supervisors and anyone who does business with the Forest Service.

Launched the Anti-Harassment Program intranet page (January 2018): The Forest Service has created a new intranet page committed to the Anti-Harassment Program. The intranet page was created to provide a single dedicated resource for all employees and contractors to receive current and accurate information regarding the anti-harassment policy and program. The new page will answer frequently asked questions, such as what is harassment, how to report it, what to expect once reported and what to expect regarding the inquiry or investigation.

Applied accountability and continuous learning: Since the establishment of our new anti-harassment policy in September 2016, we have received 1,013 reports of harassment and have completed inquiries/investigations in 632 of those cases. Of the 632 cases, 150 cases found misconduct and we have implemented corrective actions. The 150 corrective actions taken range from letters of warning all the way to termination/removal depending on the severity and facts gathered in each case. When looking at the cases where no misconduct/harassment occurred, those cases suggest the need to provide a better understanding of what harassment is. Along with that, we see a need for quicker assistance to overcome workplace conflicts or communication barriers that are not harassment or misconduct. This is particularly true when it comes to the bullying category. In these cases, we have implemented a process to quickly provide opportunities to resolve conflict and communication issues by offering the services of our Conflict Management and Prevention Program.

Created a senior advisor in the Chief’s Office: The senior advisor will integrate agency efforts that improve the work environment. This position aims to reinforce the Forest Service’s ongoing commitment to create a harassment-free workplace where every employee feels valued and respected. 

In coming weeks here are other actions we will take:

Finalizing an agency-wide anti-harassment training to continue to provide employees with the tools they need to eliminate harassment from our work environment. It addresses the five key points of our policy while stressing that every employee has a responsibility for doing their part when it comes to eliminating harassment. Training will be delivered to all employees by our senior leaders.  We expect to begin delivering this training in late spring 2018.

Designing work environment engagement opportunities that focus on building trust and provides a safe forum for employees to discuss the work environment.

Establishing an employee advisory group to identify proactive steps for peer-to-peer engagement and support to empower employees. This group will advise the Chief and senior leadership on additional practices or policy steps needed to eliminate harassment and promote safe and respectful workspaces.

As we learn more, we will continue to enhance and strengthen our agency. We must continue to uplift and empower our employees and maintain a respectful, safe working environment.

If you have been harassed, or you know of harassment taking place, please report it to the national Harassment Reporting Center, where it will be documented and investigated. Learn more on the center’s website.