How the Postal Service handles sexual harassment complaints

The U.S. Postal Service, like many agencies, has to deal with sexual harassment complaints. According to the Postal Inspector General, while USPS handles them fairly well, it lacks data on how extensive the problem might be. To get more details on the matter, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Elizabeth Kowalewski, the Director of the Inspection Service Directorate.

Interview transcript:

 

Elizabeth Kowalewski
So the objective of this audit was to evaluate the...

READ MORE

The U.S. Postal Service, like many agencies, has to deal with sexual harassment complaints. According to the Postal Inspector General, while USPS handles them fairly well, it lacks data on how extensive the problem might be. To get more details on the matter, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Elizabeth Kowalewski, the Director of the Inspection Service Directorate.

Interview transcript:

 

Elizabeth Kowalewski
So the objective of this audit was to evaluate the Postal Service’s overall response to sexual harassment complaints involving Postal Service employees. So in other words, we wanted to provide a really comprehensive overview of the various ways in which the Postal Service responds to employee sexual harassment complaints. And determine, Tom whether there were any opportunities for improvement.

Tom Temin
Got it. And let’s just define the terms here because sexual harassment covers a wide range of activities and behaviors. But it kind of stopped short of sexual assault. Is that correct?

Elizabeth Kowalewski
Correct. So we were not looking at those situations that would rise to the level of criminal sexual assault. Those would be handled by a law enforcement entity.

Tom Temin
Got it. So let’s talk about, with respect, to how the USPS handles the complaints it does know about. How do they tend to get reported up? And what is the response mechanism?

Elizabeth Kowalewski
Sure. So there are three main ways in which employees can report sexual harassment complaints. They can report them to management through a specific process. And management has its own investigation process called the initial management inquiry process. And they can report to a union representative, if appropriate, that could go through the grievance and arbitration process. And then they can also make a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, that would be through their EEO complaint process. And those complaints are really the ones that rise to the legal definition of sexual harassment. But the Postal Service’s overall anti-harassment efforts, particularly when it comes to how management responds, those are designed to address all harassment. Regardless of whether it rises to the level of the formal legal definition.

Tom Temin
Sure. So harassment, I guess is bad, regardless of the form it takes. And they look at those in the same light pretty much regardless of the type of harassment. Fair to say?

Elizabeth Kowalewski
The purpose of the Postal Service’s anti-harassment program is to deter and combat all harassment, regardless of whether it rises to the level of unlawful harassment. The EEO process has some very clear legal definitions for the cases that should be addressed via that process.

Tom Temin
Got it. And it looks like, again, from the report some of the background information is that they have pretty good systems for tracking what they do hear about. They have one oddly named system called the [Workplace Environment Tracking System (WETS)] and [Grievance and Arbitration Tracking System (GATS)]. I don’t think I would name those systems that, but they seem to be effective at keeping track of what’s going on.

Elizabeth Kowalewski
So we did find that there were some issues related to the reliability of the data in those systems. So the WET system you refer to, is the Workplace Environment Tracking System. And that’s the data system where when a complaint is made to management, and an initial management inquiry process takes place, that’s where those complaints would be housed. In that particular system, we did find that there were some opportunities to improve the accuracy of the data in the system. For example, 5% of the complaints that we reviewed that were recorded under categories, such as hostile work environment, actually met the criteria for a sexual harassment complaint.

Tom Temin
So they have some work to do then on tracking as well as dealing?

Elizabeth Kowalewski
Correct. So I think in terms of the data systems, we did identify three main reliability issues, so that accuracy issue in the WET system that I just discussed. And then in the grievance and arbitration tracking system, or GATS. There were some issues with data completeness. So it was not really possible for us to determine how many sexual harassment complaints were actually been dealt with through that process, because some of the data elements were incomplete. More broadly, though, I think when it comes to the data system, so there is a third system that the EEO uses to track complaints that go through that process.

And I think the main issue we found with regard to reliability, is that complaints can be addressed through all of these processes. And so what that means is that an individual’s complaint could be found in all three systems. However, there’s no common unique identifier for the complaints. And that means that it becomes more difficult to get an accurate tally of how much sexual harassment is actually happening and is actually reported, because there can be duplicates across those systems. We actually found that the Postal Service may not have a complete picture of the extent to which sexual harassment is or is not reported, because they don’t conduct a survey of employees about sexual harassment behaviors.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Elizabeth Kowalewski. She is director of the Inspection Service Directorate in the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General. And they do surveys because some of them are redacted in your report. But you have a long list of recommendations, one, two, three, four, five, six. It goes on and on six, that’s a long list for most of these reports. Maybe summarize them, because they are directed to the labor people also to the human resources people. Mostly to the labor relations people.

Elizabeth Kowalewski
So our first recommendation is that the Postal Service periodically survey employees about their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace. This is so the Postal Service Management can better understand the extent, to which these behaviors are occurring and to better understand whether anti-harassment programs are working. We also have two recommendations geared toward addressing the data reliability concerns, I discussed earlier. The purpose of these recommendations is to improve the Postal Service’s ability to analyze existing data on reported incidents. Another recommendation that we made is to address an issue that we identified in the Postal Service’s EEO process, that could result in some complaints going unaddressed. And finally, we made two recommendations to help ensure that all of the supervisors and managers involved in responding to sexual harassment complaints, have completed required training.

Tom Temin
And by the way, did you find or did you look at whether the postal unions can have a role in this working with the Labor Relations Department of Management at the Postal Service?

Elizabeth Kowalewski
So the system and the process that I mentioned before the grievance and arbitration process and agreements and arbitration tracking system. Sexual harassment issues can be addressed through that process. And that data would be captured in that system.

Tom Temin
And did the Postal Service generally agree with your recommendations?

Elizabeth Kowalewski
So as you mentioned, we had six recommendations. The Postal Service did agree with three of those recommendations. However, they did not agree with the remaining three. So they did not agree with the recommendation that we made related to conducting a survey or to create a verifiable process, to look at the data across the three existing systems.

Tom Temin
So then there’s a little bit of a standoff here at this point?

Elizabeth Kowalewski
I’m not sure that I would characterize it as a standoff. We do have a process for resolving these types of disagreements, our audit resolution process. So we’ll be getting that started shortly with Postal Service Management.

 

Related Stories