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VA Should Better Protect Employees From Sexual Harassment, GAO Says

Inconsistent and outdated policies are coupled with management structures that leave employees vulnerable.

The Veterans Affairs Department is insufficiently protecting employees from sexual harassment, according to a new report, as it has failed to educate managers and rank-and-file workers about the resources available to them after unlawful behavior takes place. 

VA’s leadership structure, data reporting failures, inability to update policies and poor training have all hampered the department’s response to sexual harassment, the Government Accountability Office found. Nearly one-in-four VA employees experienced sexual harassment between 2014 and 2016, according to a Merit Systems Protection Board survey, while one-in-three witnessed it occurring. 

 “Given the detrimental effects of sexual harassment and its reported prevalence at VA, it threatens to undermine VA’s core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence, and VA’s ability to fulfill its mission to deliver the highest quality services to the nation’s veterans,” GAO said. 

The auditors faulted VA for allowing its assistant secretary for human resources, administration/operations, security and preparedness to simultaneously serve as the department’s equal employment opportunity director and the top official in charge of general personnel policies. The dual hat creates a conflict of interest, GAO said, and violates a directive from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. EEOC since 2017 has pestered VA to change the structure, which allows the assistant secretary to oversee both the Office of Resolution Management and the Chief Human Capital Office, but the department has failed to do so. 

VA management told GAO it disagreed with the auditors’ findings regarding the assistant secretary position and said the department would not make any adjustment. 

Officials have for six years said VA would realign its EEO program managers deployed to each facility to report to the central Office of Resolution Management, but in most cases they instead report to management of their facilities. The Veterans Health Administration, for example, has no plans to make the change and told GAO it was unnecessary. GAO, citing VA’s own policies, said the changes would help give employees confidence their complaints would be taken seriously and not used against them. 

GAO also cited VA for posting obsolete information and policies on its website. Various parts of VA’s online resources for employees looking to report harassment link to defunct offices and key pieces of information are left out. EEO staff and other VA officials themselves expressed confusion or provided incorrect information when speaking to GAO. 

“We also found a lack of understanding among some VA staff about which policies are the official, current policies on sexual harassment,” GAO said, adding such confusion could result in “under-reporting of sexual harassment, mistrust of the process, and inconsistent responses to sexual harassment complaints.”

VA’s Office of Resolution Management conducts spot checks of the department’s various components to ensure compliance with sexual harassment policies, GAO said, but it does not have any comprehensive strategy. The department does not maintain a centralized collection of harassment complaint data. The Veterans Health Administration does not report harassment cases handled outside the EEO process to headquarters, and VA has no requirement for it to do so. 

VA has launched a Harassment Prevention Program, but never issued guidelines detailing the duties under its purview. Prevention program staff are supposed to work with management to address harassment, but GAO found a lack of guidance has created inconsistent implementation, a lack of awareness of its existence among the VA workforce and insufficient resources to fulfill its mission. The prevention program employees are also a victim of the lack of data reporting, as they cannot follow up to ensure resolution on harassment cases. VA maintains no requirement that sexual harassment cases handled outside the EEO process document a resolution, and GAO found files on more than half of such cases in 2018 failed to include it. 

“A wide range of challenges hamper VA’s ability to prevent and address sexual harassment,” GAO said. “Absent additional action, some VA employees may continue to distrust VA’s handling of sexual harassment allegations. Further, VA’s core values, which include integrity, advocacy, and respect, along with its ability to deliver the highest quality services to the nation’s veterans, may be compromised.”

While it rejected the recommendation to restructure its EEO program leadership, VA agreed with seven other suggestions for improving its sexual harassment mitigation program. 

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