Sexual Harassment Protections for Feds a ‘Byzantine Morass,’ Commission Finds in Calling for Widespread Reforms

Claims of sexual harassment by federal employees have spiked by 36% in recent years.

Federal employees are in a uniquely challenging position to speak out when facing harassment on the job, according to a new and far-reaching report, which suggested better training, protections for more workers and a new office to investigate any relevant claims of misconduct. 

Claims of sexual harassment in the federal workplace have jumped by 36% from fiscal 2015 to 2018, according to a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report titled “Federal Me Too” and released on Wednesday. Overall complaints and claims filed per person have both increased, the commission found, which noted the data—already scarce in the federal space—do not account for the vast majority of cases that go unreported. About 80% of sexual harassment claims in that period were filed by women, with black women at the highest risk for harassment. 

The commission noted that federal employees are subject to a distinct process in reporting harassment, calling it “unduly complex” and creating disadvantages compared to non-federal workers. All claims must originate within employees’ own agencies, as they must make a filing to their equal employment opportunity officer within 45 days of an incident. Commission Chairperson Catherine Lhamon called that overly restrictive and a “very short timeframe” that is less than one-third of the time private sector workers typically have. 

“In many cases [employees] unwittingly forfeit their right to bring formal claims at all,” said the commission, which called for Congress to extend claimants’ deadlines. 

When employees file their claims in time, agencies can then deny them or launch an investigation. After an investigation, employees can accept their agencies’ findings or appeal to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They cannot take their case to the EEOC or federal court without first exhausting all steps internal to their agencies. Lhamon characterized the process for federal employees as a “byzantine morass” that creates a “particularly daunting environment” for bringing claims forward. 

The commission suggested this opened the possibility for conflicts of interest because “the agency is tasked with investigating the allegations and also with defending itself.” The commission said pressure within some agencies also deterred employees from speaking out. At the State Department, an agency in which sexual harassment claims are significantly above average and one of two the commission investigated in depth, employees spoke of “corridor reputations,” which can dictate promotions and other opportunities. 

“I know my rank as a junior officer meant I had to keep my head down, handle all tasks thrown my way, and never, ever complain, especially to HR,” said one Foreign Service Officer who had been a victim of date rape after attending a Marine Corps Ball. She eventually had to take three months of sick leave and travel back to the United States at her own expense to deal with the anxiety she felt from the incident.

The commission called on State to issue a departmentwide, global policy of zero tolerance for harassment. It identified the international nature of feds’ work as a unique challenge in confronting the issue and found locally employed State employees at overseas posts to be particularly vulnerable to other employees’ misconduct. 

The commission called for Congress to establish a federal ombudsman, who would be empowered to investigate allegations of sexual harassment throughout government for employees “who may not have adequate recourse through available channels where existing agency structures may be compromised by conflicts.” It chastised the Office of Management and Budget for not finalizing and releasing EEOC’s updated guidance on unlawful harassment, which the commission submitted in January 2017. 

Agencies should establish policies to ensure harassers do not receive performance awards or promotions, the commission said, and end the practice of reassigning perpetrators to other divisions and agencies. EEOC and the Office of Personnel Management should regularly update anti-harassment policies and procedures, including mandatory training that targets “every level of employee.” The commission also called on Congress to boost EEOC funding to handle federal harassment cases, ensure contractors and interns are protected, and increase or remove entirely the limits on damages federal employees can seek. Agencies should strengthen protections for those who file claims, the commission said, and scrutinize policies that allow for non-disclosure agreements in settlements. 

The commission repeatedly noted the federal government is the nation’s largest employer and therefore should set the standard by which all other sectors model their programs.