January 19, 2022

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Sexual Harassment: VA Needs to Better Protect Employees

15 min read
<div>According to data from the most recent Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) survey in 2016, an estimated 22 percent of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees, and 14 percent of federal employees overall, experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace from mid-2014 through mid-2016. VA has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace, but some aspects of the policies and of the complaint processes may hinder those efforts. Misalignment of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Director position: VA's EEO Director oversees both the EEO complaint process, which includes addressing sexual harassment complaints, and general personnel functions. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this dual role does not adhere to one of its key directives and creates a potential conflict of interest when handling EEO issues. Incomplete or outdated policies and information: VA has an overarching policy for its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment of its employees. However, some additional policies and information documents are not consistent with VA's overarching policy, are outdated, or are missing information. For example, they may not include all options employees have for reporting sexual harassment, which could result in confusion among employees and managers. Delayed finalization of Harassment Prevention Program (HPP): VA has not formally approved the directive or the implementing guidance for its 4-year-old HPP, which seeks to prevent harassment and address it before it becomes unlawful. Lack of formal approval could limit the program's effectiveness. VA uses complaint data to understand the extent of sexual harassment at the agency, but such data are incomplete. For example, VA compiles information on allegations made through the EEO process and HPP, but does not require managers who receive complaints to report them to VA centrally. As a result, VA is not aware of all sexual harassment allegations across the agency. Without these data, VA may miss opportunities to better track prevalence and to improve its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment. VA provides training for all employees and managers, but the required training does not have in-depth information on identifying and addressing sexual harassment and does not mention HPP. Some facilities within VA's administrations supplement the training, but providing additional information is not mandatory. Requiring additional training on sexual harassment could improve VA employees' knowledge of the agency's policies and help prevent and address sexual harassment. In June 2020, GAO issued a report entitled Sexual Harassment: Inconsistent and Incomplete Policies and Information Hinder VA's Efforts to Protect Employees (GAO-20-387). This testimony summarizes the findings and recommendations from that report, including (1) the extent to which VA has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment of VA employees, (2) how available data inform VA about sexual harassment of its employees, and (3) training VA provides to employees on preventing and addressing sexual harassment. GAO made seven recommendations in its June 2020 report, including that VA ensure its EEO Director position is not responsible for personnel functions; require managers to report all sexual harassment complaints centrally; and require additional employee training. VA concurred with all but the EEO Director position recommendation, which GAO continues to believe is warranted. For more information, contact Cindy S. Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.</div>

What GAO Found

According to data from the most recent Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) survey in 2016, an estimated 22 percent of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees, and 14 percent of federal employees overall, experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace from mid-2014 through mid-2016. VA has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace, but some aspects of the policies and of the complaint processes may hinder those efforts.

  • Misalignment of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Director position: VA’s EEO Director oversees both the EEO complaint process, which includes addressing sexual harassment complaints, and general personnel functions. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this dual role does not adhere to one of its key directives and creates a potential conflict of interest when handling EEO issues.
  • Incomplete or outdated policies and information: VA has an overarching policy for its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment of its employees. However, some additional policies and information documents are not consistent with VA’s overarching policy, are outdated, or are missing information. For example, they may not include all options employees have for reporting sexual harassment, which could result in confusion among employees and managers.
  • Delayed finalization of Harassment Prevention Program (HPP): VA has not formally approved the directive or the implementing guidance for its 4-year-old HPP, which seeks to prevent harassment and address it before it becomes unlawful. Lack of formal approval could limit the program’s effectiveness.

VA uses complaint data to understand the extent of sexual harassment at the agency, but such data are incomplete. For example, VA compiles information on allegations made through the EEO process and HPP, but does not require managers who receive complaints to report them to VA centrally. As a result, VA is not aware of all sexual harassment allegations across the agency. Without these data, VA may miss opportunities to better track prevalence and to improve its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment.

VA provides training for all employees and managers, but the required training does not have in-depth information on identifying and addressing sexual harassment and does not mention HPP. Some facilities within VA’s administrations supplement the training, but providing additional information is not mandatory. Requiring additional training on sexual harassment could improve VA employees’ knowledge of the agency’s policies and help prevent and address sexual harassment.

Why GAO Did This Study

In June 2020, GAO issued a report entitled Sexual Harassment: Inconsistent and Incomplete Policies and Information Hinder VA’s Efforts to Protect Employees (GAO-20-387). This testimony summarizes the findings and recommendations from that report, including (1) the extent to which VA has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment of VA employees, (2) how available data inform VA about sexual harassment of its employees, and (3) training VA provides to employees on preventing and addressing sexual harassment.

What GAO Recommends

GAO made seven recommendations in its June 2020 report, including that VA ensure its EEO Director position is not responsible for personnel functions; require managers to report all sexual harassment complaints centrally; and require additional employee training. VA concurred with all but the EEO Director position recommendation, which GAO continues to believe is warranted.

For more information, contact Cindy S. Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.

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  • Combating Terrorism: Department of State Programs to Combat Terrorism Abroad
    In U.S GAO News
    Efforts to combat terrorism have become an increasingly important part of government activities. These efforts have also become important in the United States' relations with other countries and with international organizations, such as the United Nations (U.N.). The Department of State is charged with coordinating these international efforts and protecting Americans abroad. State has helped direct the U.S. efforts to combat terrorism abroad by building the global coalition against terrorism, including providing diplomatic support for military operations in Afghanistan and other countries. State has also supported international law enforcement efforts to identify, arrest, and bring terrorists to justice, as well as performing other activities intended to reduce the number of terrorist attacks. The State Department conducts multifaceted activities in its effort to prevent terrorist attacks on Americans abroad. For Americans traveling and living abroad, State issues public travel warnings and operates warning systems to convey terrorism-related information. For American businesses and universities operating overseas, State uses the Overseas Security Advisory Councils--voluntary partnerships between the State Department and the private sector--to exchange threat information. To disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations abroad, State has numerous programs and activities that rely on military, multilateral, economic, law enforcement, intelligence, and other capabilities. State uses extradition treaties to bring terrorists to trial in the United States and cooperates with foreign intelligence, security, and law enforcement entities to track and capture terrorists in foreign countries. If the United States has no extradition agreements with a country, then State, with the Department of Justice, can work to obtain the arrest of suspected terrorist overseas through renditions. The State Department leads the U.S. response to terrorist incidents abroad. This includes diplomatic measures to protect Americans, minimize damage, terminate terrorist attacks, and bring terrorists to justice. To coordinate the U.S. effort to combat terrorism internationally, State uses a variety of mechanisms to work with the Departments of Defense, Justice, and the Treasury; the intelligence agencies; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and others. These mechanisms include interagency working groups at the headquarters level in Washington, D.C., emergency action committees at U.S. missions overseas, and liaison exchanges with other government agencies.
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  • Virginia Man Sentenced for Role in Multimillion-Dollar Investment-Fraud Scheme
    In Crime News
    A Virginia man was sentenced today in the Eastern District of Virginia to 14 years in prison for his role in an investment fraud scheme in which he and his co-conspirators stole approximately $5.7 million from victim investors.
    [Read More…]
  • Briefing With Senior Administration Officials on Counselor Derek Chollet and an Interagency Delegation’s Upcoming Travel to Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
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