PowerPost | Perspective
December 20, 2017 at 7:00 AM
One thing this reckoning of sexual misconduct makes clear is that harassment and abuse are not one-off experiences.
Perpetrators often are multiple offenders, and survivors live with the emotional strain long after the deed.
The Government Accountability Office points to this “continuum of harm” in a report released Monday. The GAO focused on the Defense Department, but the lessons reach far beyond. The everlasting effects of sexual misconduct also were shown by an Interior Department survey issued last week.
Rand Corp. studies of the Defense Department in 2014 and 2017, cited by the GAO, show that sexual harassment is a gateway offense to more serious transgressions. The studies indicate that more than a third of male service members surveyed considered sexual assault part of hazing; victims of sexual harassment or gender discrimination suffered higher rates of sexual assault; and about one-third of service members who were sexually assaulted were first sexually harassed by the offender.
Also, the GAO said, “people are more likely to engage in problematic behaviors, such as sexual harassment, if that person perceives that peers and leaders condone those actions.”
Of course, those actions are not condoned — at least not officially. But the GAO found that Defense Department actions against the bad actors are deficient, while acknowledging the agency’s “overarching efforts to address unwanted sexual behaviors across the continuum of harm.”
“Some organizations responsible for addressing unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment lack adequate policies, plans, information systems, and resources needed to establish a departmental approach to certain behavioral issues, inform senior leadership about these problems, and ensure that leadership’s decisions about problematic behaviors are uniformly enforced,” according to the report.
The GAO warned the Pentagon that sexual harassment and assault “undermine core values, unit cohesion, combat readiness, and public goodwill.”
Defense officials generally agreed with the GAO’s recommendations to do such things as developing sexual violence prevention policies, including risk and protective measures.
The continuum of harm also can turn victims into offenders. You don’t have to talk with many female lawbreakers to understand that behind many wrongdoing women are abusive, violent men.
GAO said research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “revealed that behaviors such as bullying and homophobic teasing in early adolescence are significant predictors of sexual harassment over time … CDC’s research has also established that survivors of one form of violence are more likely to be victims of other forms of violence, that survivors of violence are at higher risk for behaving violently, and that people who behave violently are more likely to commit other forms of violence.”
Those findings are in line with the Work Environment Survey released Thursday by the Interior Department. The survey “was designed to assess workplace conditions that DOI employees experience, including the prevalence and context of all forms of harassment and specifically sexual harassment.”
The prevalence is far higher than it should be.
Thirty-five percent of the Interior employees who responded to the survey said they have been harassed or discriminated against in the preceding year. Particularly troubling, “60.2% of the employees indicated the experience occurred more than once.” Almost all the victims, 85.5 percent, said they had to continue working with the culprit.
Here’s an all too common gripe: Among staffers who complained about inappropriate behavior, “employees were generally dissatisfied with their reporting experience.”
There were two disturbing points. Out of 15 possible results of making a complaint offered to those who took the survey, the one with the greatest agreement, at 39.9 percent, was “person told took no action.” The result with the smallest level of agreement, at 4.8 percent, was “some official career action was taken against the person(s) for the behavior.”
So, generally, nothing was done. No wonder so many victims don’t report harassment or abuse, or wait so long to make a report.
The Interior survey also indicates the toxic impact of harassment and discrimination. Just over 36 percent reported damaged relationships with co-workers and managers; between 15 percent and 19 percent reported emotional problems and sought counseling or took sick time; 37 percent said the problems made their work more difficult; and 34 percent considered quitting.
Meanwhile, from September 2016, when the Forest Service implemented an updated anti-harassment policy, until last month, the agency resolved 400 cases of alleged harassment. Of those, the Forest Service said it “has substantiated 83 cases of harassment including 1 sexual assault (that employee was removed); 34 cases of sexual harassment (employees were removed/terminated, suspended or received reprimands depending on the offense;) and 51 employees were found to have engaged in other, non-sexual harassment. These employees faced discipline including suspension, letters of reprimand, and counseling. In all, 63 employees have been disciplined up to and including removal. And an additional 23 people left the agency in lieu of facing discipline.”
Back at Interior, the top leaders were quick to praise their actions, while criticizing others.
“From day one, I made it clear that I have zero tolerance for any type of workplace harassment, and I have directed leadership across the entire Department to move rapidly to improve accountability and transparency with regard to this intolerable behavior,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said. “All employees have the right to work in a safe and harassment-free environment. I’ve already fired a number of predators who other administrations were too afraid to remove or just turned a blind eye to. Under my leadership we don’t protect predators. When I say ‘zero tolerance’ I mean that these people will be held accountable for their abhorrent actions.”