Public lands, private pain: Stopping sexual harassment at the Interior Department

The overdue national conversation on sexual harassment has revolved around awful behavior by well-known individuals. This media focus on the latest big name in entertainment, business or politics, while perhaps unavoidable, has tended to gloss over a big part of the story: sexual harassment pervades all kinds of workplaces, including federal agencies.

newly released report by the minority staff of the House Natural Resources Committee shows that the Department of the Interior (DOI), which oversees our national parks and public lands, faces a critical lack of anti-harassment policies. As DOI agencies prepare to submit formal action plans to combat sexual harassment — reportedly coming out next week — we urge DOI and agency officials to read the report, which offers straightforward remedies, and take its findings to heart.

As the report finds, a lack of strong anti-harassment policies to protect employees and volunteers who maintain, enhance and protect our public lands every day has contributed to sometimes pervasive cultures of intimidation and abuse of power. Indeed, the report shows that while DOI agencies such as the National Park Service (NPS) – where disturbing accounts of harassment at Grand Canyon National Park and elsewhere have recently raised the issue’s profile – are aware they have a problem, they have so far not done enough to correct it. 

The report shows conclusively that one of the first steps in addressing harassment is to implement a strong anti-harassment policy and make all staff aware of it, a step some agencies have yet to take. Such policies cannot stop at an often counterproductive “zero tolerance” statement of purpose, as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s comments on the issue have frequently done. They need to lay out a clear mechanism for reporting incidents of harassment, create a meaningful and predictable process for investigating claims, protect the confidentiality of complainants and explicitly prohibit retaliation against those who come forward.

As the findings make clear, no policy can be entirely effective without these features. Their simplicity makes it all the more remarkable how badly sexual harassment has been handled at certain DOI agencies, in some cases going back through multiple presidential administrations.

If taking this step sounds like too much to ask, or much ado about nothing, consider the fact that handling enforcement and privacy concerns on an ad hoc basis will keep employees with legitimate grievances silent. Without a guarantee that an administrator can’t punish an employee who raises the alarm, many incidents will simply go unreported.

We all know — now better than ever, thanks to the #MeToo movement and the courage of Americans finding their public voice on the issue — that “unreported” doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or that it will be quickly forgotten. It means top managers didn’t want to hear about it or wanted to sweep it under the rug.

That’s simply no longer an option. 

We’re concerned that Secretary Zinke doesn’t understand the problem or its magnitude. One example will suffice to make the point. Last summer, the superintendent of Florida’s De Soto National Memorial Park was fired after a pattern of sexually harassing a subordinate. The secretary, or his designated point person, should have clearly laid out how this situation would be fixed and avoided in the future. Instead, NPS staffers were given talking points instructing them to praise the departed superintendent for making “a substantial contribution” during his tenure.

This was far from an isolated incident. An Obama administration employee survey, initiated before President Trump took office and released in December 2017, found that 35 percent of DOI employees experienced some form of harassment in the 12 months before the survey was taken. That can only happen where harassment isn’t being prevented.

The buck has to stop somewhere, and right now nobody at DOI seems to know where that is. If Secretary Zinke and his lieutenants are serious about ending the culture of impunity that dominates certain segments of our public lands agencies, they will ensure that every agency has a strong, multi-faceted anti-harassment policy in place, and they will encourage complainants to come forward without fear of retaliation. Falling short of that will simply allow the issue to fester. 

Paying lip service to the value of a healthy work environment is not the same thing as addressing or preventing harassment. The new report clearly lays out the steps Secretary Zinke and agency heads need to take. The question now is whether they’ll listen. 

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva is ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Donald McEachin is ranking member of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

By:  Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.)
Source: The Hill