Interior says it’s responded well to ‘wake-up call’ revelations on employee harassment

More than a third of employees at the Interior Department said two years ago they had experienced some form of harassment on the job.

The revelation, along with employees’ own stories, stunned the department and members of Congress. Interior vowed to improve and create a more inclusive, respectful work environment.

By Interior’s account, it has.

About 18% of Interior employees said this year they had experienced some form of harassment within the past year, according to the department’s most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results.

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And nearly 94% of Interior employees said in 2019 they knew where to go to report harassment, compared to 62.3% of employees who answered a similar question on the 2017 survey.

“The report that came out … was so horrible,” Susan Combs, assistant secretary for policy, management and budget at the Interior Department, said of the 2017 survey during a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee last week. “It was such an eye-opener. People were just astonished and shocked at what had happened to those folks in Grand Canyon and elsewhere. It prompted the kind of soul searching that obviously should have taken place earlier.”

Interior included six department-specific questions about harassment on the 2019 FEVS. The results of the governmentwide engagement survey are expected later this week.

The department acknowledged it used two different survey instruments to measure the progress it reported to the committee, but lawmakers largely applauded Interior’s new statistics.

Since 2017, Interior said it’s made a concerted effort to reverse the deeply rooted and alarming trends they saw within the workforce.

First, the department said it’s making a significant effort to train its employees on anti-harassment measures.

Nearly 9,000 Interior supervisors have received harassment training over the past two years, Combs said. All Interior supervisors now have anti-harassment measures embedded within their performance standards.

The department is also working with a third-party vendor, who will provide online harassment training for all Interior employees. These training sessions will be customized to individual Interior bureaus and organizations, Combs said.

In addition, the department will hold 72 sessions of bystander intervention training at Interior sites across the country, Combs added. Those classes will begin this month.

Beyond additional training, top Interior leaders formed the Workplace Culture Transformation Advisory Council. Combs, along with bureau leadership, discuss and implement departmentwide anti-harassment policies and initiatives.

Interior’s plans to add bystander training earned praise from lawmakers and outside culture and inclusion consultants alike.

The department has also stood up a case management system, which tracks official instances of employee misconduct and allows Interior to ensure bureau managers are following appropriate reporting guidelines, Combs said.

Still, Congress and the Interior inspector general see room for improvement.

Individual Interior bureaus and offices, for example, are responsible for conducting and then footing the bill for any investigations into employee misconduct or harassment.

For Mark Greenblatt, the department’s IG, Interior needs to strike the right balance. While having bureau managers find a way to pay for these investigations is, in theory, holding them accountable, the IG fears that tactic could create a chilling effect among employees.

“If you’re in a smaller office and there’s a complaint that comes forward and that office then has to bear the cost, that could impact their training, that could impact their ability to carry out their mission,” Greenblatt said. “Therefore there’s a concern that if there are employees in a smaller office, they may be less willing to come forward and incur that cost on their own office, be it the survivor [or] the victims themselves or a witness may be reluctant to come forward.”

Combs said Interior is currently choosing a third-party vendor to manage these investigations. In the future, the funding to conduct them would come from a revolving fund-type mechanism, she added.

Chai Feldblum, a former commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, urged Interior to consider how its workforce and anti-harassment policies might fare within small work units at Interior’s national parks around the country.

One National Park Service employee who worked at Grand Canyon described multiple instances of sexual harassment in her testimony before Congress back in 2016. When she told her supervisors what happened, she got an apology and a promise it would never happen again. The supervisor she alleged remained with the park service.

“An agency can have the best policy or procedures at headquarters, but at decentralized workplaces individual supervisors often reign supreme,”said Feldblum, who currently leads a workplace culture consulting group at the law firm Morgan, Lewis and Bockius. “And in isolated and remote workplaces with only a few employees, that is an additional risk factor.”

Members of the House Natural Resources Committee were relatively optimistic about the progress they saw from Interior. But some worried about the consistency of that progress and feared Interior initiatives like the Bureau of Land Management relocation or department-wide reorganization could dampen employee morale.

“At the top, people have to protect people who come forward,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said. “They can’t be viewed as troublemakers. Even when people go through the motion of addressing the problem but they’re still totally ostracized in the workplace. Nobody hires them. Nobody promotes them because they’re labeled as troublemakers. That’s still too real in workplaces, not just at Interior but across the country. Leaders have to lead.”

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