GAO questions Pentagon’s efforts to prevent sex harassment

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 1, 2011

Sexual harassment, even allegations, can do more than complicate Herman Cain’s presidential campaign. It also can “jeopardize the military’s combat readiness and mission accomplishment.”

That’s the word from a Government Accountability Office report on sexual harassment in the Defense Department.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Despite “a long-standing policy aimed at providing an environment that is free from sexual harassment,” the Pentagon needs “greater leadership commitment” to prevent the illegal discrimination, the report says.

Just having a policy isn’t enough.

The GAO said DOD has not held commanders fully accountable, does not provide adequate guidance on how incidents of sexual harassment involving two or more services should be handled and “has limited visibility over the occurrence of sexual harassment.”

Pentagon officials don’t run from the GAO report, which was previously reported by GovExec.com. A department statement promised to “strengthen our extensive sexual harassment prevention programs. We will develop an executable plan, prioritize actions, and address resourcing for the changes recommended.”

The limited visibility that GAO cited apparently stems at least in part from the many cases of sexual harassment that go unreported. “The majority of servicemembers who felt they were harassed sexually chose not to formally report the incident,” a GAO survey found.

That’s an understatement, according to GAO data that show only four of 82 servicemembers who indicated they had been sexually harassed formally reported the incident.

The GAO provided a list of recommendations for Pentagon officials, including that they “develop a strategy for holding individuals in positions of leadership accountable for promoting, supporting and enforcing the department’s sexual harassment policies and programs.”

Telework gains traction

Federal managers who remain reluctant to allow their staff members to telework should read a new report by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Admittedly, some of the findings in “Telework: Weighing the Information, Determining an Appropriate Approach” aren’t new: Telework can benefit agencies and employees, but some managers worry about how it can affect productivity.

The value of the report is the recommendations it provides to managers, employees and agency leaders to help ease the transition to a way of doing business that is becoming more and more popular.

Managers who cling to the notion that they can’t manage employees they can’t see will be blind to the future. The MSPB report helps lead the way.

So does the General Services Administration’s new policy on telework. It lays out GSA’s “core belief” on telework in no uncertain terms: “Work is what we do, not where we are.”

GSA wants to be on the vanguard of federal telework. Unabashedly, the plan says GSA intends to “guide itself and the entire federal government on essential workplace and workforce transformation.”

A blog posted by Sharon Wall, a GSA telework official, says the policy can “take telework to the next level, where anywhere, anytime work for virtually all employees could become a reality . . . the new policy empowers our entire workforce to be mobile and agile for the 21st century economy.”

If other agencies want to follow GSA’s example, MSPB provides recommendations for agency leaders, supervisors and staffers. For all three groups, MSPB recommends determining the technology and security needed to support telework being flexible, because the best approach is likely to change with time, and sharing information with colleagues.

A survey in the report shows the value of telework. Among “routine” teleworkers — those who telecommute at least one day a week — 87 percent said it had a positive impact on their work-life balance. A good majority of supervisors, 60 percent, said telework had a positive impact on their ability to retain high-performing staffers.

Though the report was released Monday, the survey was done in 2009. Nonetheless, MSPB says it remains relevant: “We are confident that our survey results are still valid and accurate and that our findings and recommendations are supported by much of the information currently being released about telework.”

Split decision

The American Federation of Government Employees took a split decision in a vote to organize workers at the Office of Management and Budget.

Professional staffers rejected the AFGE by a vote of 59 for to 101 against. Nonprofessional workers voted to join AFGE with a vote of 11 for to 1 against. Only 16 people are in the nonprofessional unit and were eligible to vote, according to the Federal Labor Relations Authority, which conducted the balloting.

In an e-mail message to OMB employees after the vote, Director Jack Lew said “the administration is deeply committed to the rights of workers to organize. Thus, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the vote, I have been — and remain — committed to working with the entire OMB team to create an agency that meets our highest standards, serves the president and the American people, and is a welcoming and productive place to work.”

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