Issue Briefs

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Following are key portions of a GAO witness’s testimony at a recent House hearing on sexual harassment at the VA, following a recent GAO study of the issue.

Sexual harassment in the workplace can negatively affect both employees and the environment in which they work. According to data from the most recent Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) survey in 2016, an estimated 22 percent of VA employees, and 14 percent of federal employees overall, experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace from mid-2014 to mid-2016.

Sexual harassment may include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment that is sufficiently severe or pervasive, or that results in an adverse employment action, may constitute a form of unlawful employment discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

Incomplete or outdated policies and information
While VA has an overarching sexual harassment policy regarding preventing and addressing sexual harassment of employees, and VA and its administrations have additional policies to support it, some policies and information documents are not consistent with the overarching sexual harassment policy and some have outdated or missing information. For example, these resources may not include all options employees have for reporting sexual harassment, which could result in confusion among employees and managers. Our report recommends that VA ensure that all VA and administration policies and information documents are current, complete, and aligned with VA’s overarching sexual harassment policy. VA agreed with this recommendation and said it will develop a plan to address it by the end of December 2020 and begin implementing the plan by the end of March 2021.

Delayed finalization of HPP
The Harassment Prevention Program (HPP) has been an active VA program for over 4 years and is cited in VA’s sexual harassment policy. However, neither the directive establishing HPP’s policies nor its handbook of implementation guidance has been approved by VA leadership and distributed to employees. VA officials said the delay is due to numerous revisions to ensure the documents are clear and comprehensive, and that even without a directive and handbook, VA employees are aware of HPP through VA’s sexual harassment policy and the HPP website. However, we found that VA’s failure to approve and distribute HPP policy and guidance has contributed to inconsistent implementation and a lack of awareness about HPP. This includes inconsistent collection of HPP data and some EEO staff having an inaccurate understanding of HPP. Our report recommends that VA finalize the HPP directive and handbook. VA agreed with this recommendation and said it will finalize the documents by December 2020.

Limitations in use of sexual harassment data
The Office of Resolution Management (ORM) relies on complaint data to understand the extent of sexual harassment at VA, but these data are incomplete. Specifically, VA does not have centralized information on complaints addressed through the management process because there is no requirement to report this information to ORM after managers receive an allegation. According to VA policy, HPP is to provide centralized tracking, monitoring, and reporting to proactively respond to all allegations of harassment. However, HPP cannot effectively do this until VA has more comprehensive information on all reported allegations. In addition, VA does not use additional available information that could inform its efforts to address sexual harassment, such as data from the MSPB survey, which suggest that many employees do not file formal complaints when they experience sexual harassment. Our report recommends that VA require managers to report all sexual harassment complaints to ORM, and that ORM should use this information, along with other available data, to assess and improve VA’s efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment. VA agreed with this recommendation and said it will implement a new system to address it by the end of September 2021.

Incomplete tracking of corrective actions
VA has policies and procedures to ensure that appropriate corrective actions occur for sexual harassment cases addressed through the EEO process, but not for cases addressed through the management process or HPP. In cases in which an investigation of a complaint results in a finding of discrimination (through the EEO process) or a finding of harassment (through the management/HPP process), corrective actions or other remedies may be appropriate. However, for cases that are resolved through the management process or HPP, VA does not require that managers provide evidence to ORM that appropriate corrective action, if any, was taken. ORM officials said documentation is not required because HPP staff—who are responsible for monitoring that managers address sexual harassment complaints—can follow up with the facility to obtain documentation, if needed. However, without access to documentation of corrective actions, there is no consistent way for ORM to hold management accountable for taking these steps. A lack of documentation does not mean that such corrective actions did not occur; nonetheless, without adequate documentation VA may not have reasonable assurance that they did. Such information is important to show that the agency takes harassment seriously and that those responsible are held accountable. Our report recommends, for sexual harassment complaints addressed through the management process, VA ensure that decided corrective actions are implemented, including requiring managers to provide evidence of such actions. VA agreed with this recommendation and said by the end of September 2021 it will require managers to upload evidence of corrective actions to its new system for reporting sexual harassment allegations.

VA Provides Limited Training on Sexual Harassment to Its Employees
VA provides information on sexual harassment policies and procedures as part of its broader online harassment trainings required for all employees and managers every 2 years, and through web pages and policy statements, posters, and brochures in VA facilities. However, the required trainings do not provide in-depth information on identifying and addressing sexual harassment. For example, they have one or no sexual harassment scenarios to help employees understand prohibited behaviors, and there is no information about HPP. Some facilities within VA’s administrations supplement the VA-wide mandatory harassment training with additional training that is specifically focused on sexual harassment; however, not all VA employees are required to take it. Mandatory training focused on sexual harassment that includes clear and consistent information on HPP could substantially improve employee knowledge of VA policies and procedures, and help prevent sexual harassment or ensure it is properly handled when it occurs. Our report recommends that VA require additional training for all VA employees on identifying and addressing sexual harassment, including the HPP process. VA agreed with this recommendation and said by the end of September 2021 it will restructure its sexual harassment prevention training for all employees to make it more impactful.

In conclusion, an agency’s ability to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment is important to ensuring that employees are healthy and productive. A wide range of issues currently hamper VA’s ability to effectively protect its employees from such behavior. Absent additional action, some VA employees may continue to distrust VA’s handling of allegations, and VA’s efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment may remain limited. 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. By implementing our report’s seven recommendations, VA has the opportunity to better prevent and address sexual harassment and create a safer work environment for its employees.

Federal Employee Provisions TBD as Congress Takes Up Relief Bill

Commission Reports on Sexual Harassment in Federal Workplace (July 9)

DoD Updates Harassment Prevention and Response Policies (July 8)

2022 Federal Employees Handbook