Soft on Harassment?

In a rare challenge to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Personnel Management is appealing a board decision to overturn the firing of a high-ranking senior executive for sexual harassment.

OPM said MSPB's decision to reduce the punishment of Phillip Hillen, a former senior civilian manager at the Army's Military Traffic Management Command, from dismissal to a 90-day suspension was "outrageous." OPM Director Jim King called it a "major step backward in the struggle against sexual harassment in the federal government.

"The Board's decision sends the message that the ultimate price of creating a hostile and intimidating work environment will be small and affordable--a mere cost of doing business."

The Merit Systems Protection Board had no comment on the OPM appeal because it is a pending case.

The ultimate decision in the case will have no effect on Hillen's job status, since he is now employed in the private sector. But OPM said it would appeal the decision to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to challenge the precedent the decision sets.

In 1985, Hillen was fired after five women accused him of actions ranging from sexually suggestive looks to telling dirty jokes to touching a woman on her buttocks, thigh, and breast. Hillen denied the charges, saying that his actions may have been misunderstood. The Army's inspector general reviewed the case and concluded that sexual harrassment had occurred.

Hillen appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board and appeared before an administrative judge three times. Each time the judge found that there was no sexual harassment and ordered that Hillen be reinstated. Each time the decision was appealed. The full MSPB reviewed the case and upheld the administrative judge's decision. OPM then appealed to the circuit court.

In 1994, the appeals court ruled in King v. Hillen that the board had improperly applied sexual harassment law. The court found that Hillen had committed sexual harassment, ruling that an action constitutes harassment if a "reasonable person" and the victim would consider it offensive or abusive. The court also questioned the board's decision to look at each charge of sexual harassment separately, rather than as a pattern of misconduct.

The court sent the case back to MSPB. The Board reversed its decision and found Hillen guilty of misconduct, but struck down the Army's termination of Hillen, ruling that he deserved only a 90-day suspension. So last month OPM again appealed the case to the circuit court.

The reduced punishment suggests that MSPB is easy on sexual harassers, King said. "Even after employers discipline the perpetrators of sexual harassment to the fullest extent of the law, it will come as a shock to courageous victims who report this offensive conduct that the Merit Systems Protection Board may restore the perpetrators to their positions of authority and power at the end of the day," he said.

OPM Legal Counsel Lorraine Lewis said her agency believes the board should defer to decisions made by agencies that have followed due process properly. The Army did so in this case, she said. Lewis said this is the first time she knows of that MSPB has challenged an agency termination of a senior executive.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    Download
  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.