How Can Feds Best Respond to Sexual Harassment?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Many government leaders are asking themselves if the kind of sexual harassment reported in the recent headlines is truly so commonplace. What’s more, they want to know how to stop it.

In truth, we likely have no idea how many people are harassed in the workforce because many people don’t file formal complaints due to fear of retaliation. Analysis of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) data by the Center for American Progress found only 15,000 complaints of sexual harassment filed in 2016, and only 85,000 filed from 2005 to 2015, or an average of 8,500 a year. It strains credulity to believe that less than one-tenth of one percent of the American workforce had experienced sexual harassment, given what we keep learning about powerful men (and a handful of women) in every other field.

Here’s what we do know: According to a Government Executive summary of a Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), 18 percent of female federal workers in 2015-2016 had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, which would equate to more than 80,000 complaints a year. Another 1 percent, or one out of a hundred, reported that they’d experienced actual or attempted rape or sexual assault. This data shows us that every fifth woman you meet in a federal workplace has experienced something like this.

There’s plenty of guidance on preventing sexual harassment and best practices available for managers. As a young woman and a future federal leader, I’d like to use that as a launching point to suggest some cultural changes that managers can bring to their teams.


Be Vigilant

For starters, abusers often target vulnerable victims, such as younger employees or employees with conditional employment, so they have leverage to keep their victims silent. In the federal context, this might mean interns or term employees. Leaders and peers need to exercise extra vigilance to spot potentially exploitative situations with these kinds of employees—before they can arise. Employees need to know that their manager has their best interests at heart and that they’re free to voice their concerns to their manager.

After reading the many stories from the #MeToo movement, it’s becoming clear that the warning signs are often easy to spot if one is paying attention. In many of the cases of repeated abuse that have come to light, colleagues report that it was an “open secret” that the boss or powerful figure in question acted inappropriately. As a leader, don’t turn a blind eye to repeated incidents or assume that if the victimized employee hasn’t spoken up that they are okay with the situation.

Educate Everyone

Educate yourself and your team of what behavior is appropriate—and what is not. There are many instances that some employees might consider appropriate and others might find uncomfortable, and you help everyone by setting clear expectations. Let your employees know that it’s their job, just as much as it’s yours, to call out people who fall short of the established standard of behavior.

Offer Support and Resources

If an employee does fall victim to sexual harassment or assault, there are numerous resources available to feds, such as the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). During this sensitive time, leaders should ensure that the victim’s claims are taken seriously and that the appropriate steps are taken in a timely manner. Approach the employee in a safe space, mention the situation that you have noticed, and discuss how you plan to resolve the situation. These instances are never easy to deal with, but managers should always approach them in a timely manner, with the victim’s best interest at heart, and of course, showing that they care.

Bottom line: Though creating a better workplace culture is everyone’s responsibility, supervisors and managers have the most power to prevent, detect, and respond to harassment.

About the Author
Jovanka Balac is the national president for Young Government Leaders , an association of young leaders across the federal government seeking to educate, inspire, and transform, as well as serve as a coordinated voice, for current and future leaders in government. Jovanka works as a project manager for a federal agency, served as a Youth Development Advisor in Romania with the United States Peace Corps, and worked to get every impoverished child enrolled in school in Romania with an NGO called OvidiuRo.
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