Labor & Employment

US agencies have to stop transferring, promoting alleged sexual harassers, report says

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Majority members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are recommending that the federal government take more steps to curb sexual harassment in its own workplace.

Employees who commit serious sexual harassment should not be able to receive promotions and performance awards, and they should not be reassigned to other divisions or agencies, according to majority recommendations in a commission report released Wednesday.

Penalties in disciplinary actions against harassers should be uniform throughout departments, the report said. A press release is here.

The majority also recommends that Congress increase or remove caps on damages for federal discrimination claims “to give victims a more realistic opportunity to retain outside counsel to represent them through the complaint process.”

Other majority recommendations: Congress should establish a federal ombudsperson to investigate sexual harassment claims of those who may not have adequate recourse through internal procedures. And Congress should also enact explicit statutory protections for federal government contractors and interns.

The report said there is little publicly available data about sexual harassment among federal employees, but some information points to a continuing sexual harassment problem.

Between fiscal years 2015 and 2018, federal employees filed 2,257 sexual harassment claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The annual numbers increased 36% from fiscal 2015 to 2018. The number of actual occurrences among the government’s estimated 2 million employees is likely far higher, the report said.

Before filing a complaint, federal employees must pursue an internal complaint process. In fiscal year 2016, federal employees filed 6,990 internal claims of sexual harassment, gender harassment and hostile work environment. The number increased to 7,560 in fiscal 2017 and 8,418 in fiscal 2018.

A survey by the Merit Systems Protection Board estimated that one in seven federal employees experienced sexually harassing behavior at work between 2016 and 2018. Women in the survey were more than twice as likely as men to report experiencing sexual harassment.

The report also reviewed academic findings about the power dynamics of sexual harassment. The report cited findings by a group of employment law professors, who wrote: “The bottom line is that harassment is more about upholding gendered status and identity than it is about expressing sexual desire or sexuality. Harassment provides a way for some men to monopolize prized work roles and to maintain a superior masculine position and sense of self. … Where unwanted sexual misconduct occurs, it is typically a telltale sign of broader patterns of discrimination and inequality at work such as sex segregation and gender stereotyping.”

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