From the Hollywood Hills to Silicon Valley, in the fields of USDA, through the U.S. Forest Services; sexual harassment and misconduct have become a societal problem not a systemic problem within corporations, according to Sundar Pichai, Google CEO. That could be examined from a binary lens view. Viewing from the on switch, sexual harassment and misconduct could be a societal issue. However, viewing from the off switch, recognizing the signs and concerns of sexual harassment could be systematic within government agencies and corporations. Regardless of a binary view, the Full House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on November 15, 2018, to examine the U.S. Forest Service’s response to allegations of misconduct, sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation.
Prior to November 15, 2018, the Committee held a hearing on December 1, 2016 to examine reported misconduct, harassment, and gender discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Despite the initiatives launched to improve the work environment, the reports of misconduct, retaliation, and sexual harassment continue. The USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued an interim audit report as of March 18, 2018, and are preparing a full audit report to determine whether USFS’s actions to address complaints were implemented in accordance with USFS’s agreement with the Office of the General Counsel and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.
The witnesses and testimonies panel for the recently held hearing included Ms. Vicki Christiansen, Chief of U.S. Forest Service, The Honorable Phyllis K. Fong, Inspector General U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Ms. Shannon Reed former Air Quality Specialist at the U.S. Forest Service. In Ms. Reed’s case, it could be examined from the binary off switch view – recognizing the signs and concerns of sexual harassment within a government agency. Ms. Reed was supported by the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees along with others during her testimony. She started off in Forest Services and was touched by a Supervisor. That touch then leads to an improper personal relationship resulting in Ms. Reed refusing her supervisors advances. Once Ms. Reed filed a complaint to report the improper advances, she was suspended for 7 days. However, she was rated fully successful in her performance appraisal for the years 2015-17. During her testimony, Ms. Reed expressed she believes her suspension was because she had reported the improper advances.
Ms. Reed believed that Park Services would give her a fresh start and a new outlook on life, but she felt like “jumping from the frying pan, into the fire.” Ranking Member Elijah Cummings expressed to Ms. Reed “I’m sorry that you have had to make so many moves to try and find a safe place to work, in 2018.” Congressman Cummings stated it shouldn’t be tolerated by this government or any other workplace. “What would make this right?,” Ranking Member asked Ms. Reed. She believes the Park Service should fire the perpetrators and rid that agency of those perpetrators and those predators. Surprisingly, Ms. Christiansen, Chief of U.S. Forest Services had some feedback for Congressman Elijah Cummings. “I absolutely agree. I can assure you that every allegation has a full investigation. The harassment risk, HART team takes the minor bullying and non-sexual cases and they do an inquiry. Anything that is sexual harassment goes through a full certified investigation. Now, it is possible the information from the investigation will be redacted showing how the agency manages critical concerns before scheduled Committee hearings. Furthermore, Ms. Christiansen was unable to make any comments about any specific cases, but is committed to changing the culture.
Chief Christiansen expressed to the Committee “I would like to say I could change it in 6 months.” She should share her culture cleanup codes with those in Silicon Valley, on and the movie sets of Hollywood, but this issue could be examined from a binary view, a societal issue. Furthermore, Chief Christiansen said “to be absolutely honest, I don’t think you can change a culture of an organization that’s existed for 113 years, has 40,000 people that has a mission of getting critical jobs done in remote locations overnight.” That could very well be a borderline excuse with not much enthusiasm or optimism to see the culture shift. Ms. Christiansen agreed to work with pace to change parts of the culture the agency sees as important. She informed the Committee that it was a possibility that they were speaking of two different things about culture, and you just don’t legislate culture. Chief Christiansen asked the Committee for additional suggestions for help and she is all ears.
The behavior of sexual harassment and misconduct along with retaliation are not OK, and Ms. Christiansen stressed to the Committee that on behalf of the 40,000 employees, will establish a code of conduct, but she did inform them just like any life population, there are people that are not doing the right thing. They are not respecting each other and that is not OK. “I think they are hearing the message today from all of us on the witness panel that this is a zero tolerance situation and that we stand ready to assist people who have concerns,” Chief Christiansen assured Congress.