Forest Service Advised to Improve Reporting on Sexual Harassment

The audit was sent to Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen. The audit was sent to Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen. Tanya Flores/Forest Service

Nearly a year after its chief resigned over charges of sexual misconduct, the Forest Service got word that it should improve its reporting and hiring practices that allowed some officials with questionable histories to rise through the ranks.

For a report released this week by the inspector general of the Agriculture Department (the Forest Service’s parent agency), investigators of the agency—which has been grappling with sometimes-sensational reports of sexual harassment and discrimination for several years—reviewed intake forms for 125 complaints from fiscal 2014-2017 in its Region 5, the Pacific Southwest.

“We found that 18 of these cases were not reported by [Forest Service] managers and supervisors within the required 24-hour timeframe,” said the redacted report led by Gil Harden, assistant inspector general for audit, and sent to Forest Service Chief Victoria Christiansen. “In addition, we found that in 13 of these 18 cases, [the Forest Service] took no action against management officials who did not timely report these allegations.”

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From 2013–2017, the auditors “found two, and likely a third, cases in which former supervisors did not inform [Forest Service] hiring officials about employees’ prior histories. Those employees were later selected for supervisory positions in other [Forest Service] regions. This occurred because hiring officials relied on reference checks with the employees’ former supervisors, who did not disclose the misconduct when they submitted the reference checklist.”

The problem, the auditors suggested, was that the supervisors “do not appear to fully understand” the 24-hour reporting requirement and “lack specific guidelines on disciplinary actions” needed. What’s more, the report said, the allegedly victimized employees may lack confidence in the service’s “willingness and ability to timely follow up on their allegations of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, and may therefore be more reluctant to report these types of complaints.”

The results “could adversely affect employee morale within the agency,” auditors said.

The watchdog credited the Forest Service with having taken “constructive steps toward improving its work environment” since 2014, as part of an agreement between its general counsel and the department’s civil rights office. The agency’s website contains its statement addressing sex discrimination, its sexual harassment reporting center created in November 2017, and a past IG survey of 4,800 employees in Region 5 on the issues.

The IG made eight recommendations such as improving training and guidance on reference checks, including employee discipline for failure to comply; and improving documentation for justifications for departing from prescribed penalties.

The agency managers agreed with the recommendations, but cited concerns about “protecting the agency from liability caused by hiring managers asking questions that are too detailed regarding prior discipline,” which could violate the merit principles. Another worry is that strict compliance risks “placing supervisors in the position of having to violate a settlement agreement that requires them to not disclose certain information without legal risk to the agency or themselves.”

Still, the Forest Service plans to implement the recommendations by June.

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