National Park Service Failed to Remedy Sexual Harassment 15:25, March 10, 2017

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National Park Service Failed to Remedy Sexual Harassment

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A federal investigation and contentious House hearing revealed the “culture of sexual harassment” that pervaded certain work areas of the National Park Service as well as a breach of ethics. The investigation reveals classic signs of sexual harassment and the ethical and legal duties of leaders to stamp out resulting workplace discrimination, which caused one Congressman to incredulously ask Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, “How many sexual harassments does it take to fire a federal worker?”

Investigation Uncovered Three Targets of Sexual Harassment

According to an investigative report publically released by the US Office of the Inspector General, a chief ranger invited his subordinate, a law enforcement employee, to the house of a volunteer to help him around the house in late December 2015. The house was empty, and the supervisor advised they both go upstairs into a bedroom. When the employee’s back was turned away, the supervisor tugged at her shirt and grabbed her belt, turned her around and firmly embraced her body before attempting to kiss her. She pushed his body away after questioning his actions.

Weeks later, the supervisor asked the employee to join him in an evidence room to discuss ammunition. She joined him, and quickly exited shortly after being alone with him in the evidence room, with the door closed. Later that day, she found her supervisor seated at her computer. Distressed, the employee confided in two ranger peers, who compelled her to make an official report of her supervisor’s conduct.

According to witnesses, the employee was scared about the ramifications of reporting her supervisor, mostly how it would impact her job, but appeared to be relieved after talking about it. Before the incident, it wasn’t uncommon for law enforcement staff to joke, talk about sex and alcohol, and hug each other. The employee made an official report against her supervisor in late January, and he was immediately removed as her supervisor since an investigation was pending.

The course of the investigation revealed that the supervisor targeted two other employees, complimenting one on her physical appearance, showing unwanted and unsolicited tokens of affection,  asking her out on dates, and engaging in conversation about sexually explicit content in movies. The supervisor asked another employee multiple times for a date and called her after work on her cell phone.

The Park Service isn’t the only federal service that has had its problems with harassment. Back in 1972, Gene C. Bernardi, a research sociologist for the Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experiment Station in Berkeley, CA, filed a sex discrimination complaint after she was refused a promotion and raise in pay. In 1981 she was awarded compensation and a raise in classification. In 1973 she filed a class action for discrimination in Forest Service hiring and promotion policies. The US Forest Service agreed to a consent decree in 1981, but failed to follow through with it. In 1989 the Secretary of Agriculture was found in contempt for failing to comply with the decree.

While cultural attitudes about sex and gender have improved and legal protections have increased in many fields since 1989, the House hearing brings sex discrimination claims front and center for the National Park Service. According to the Washington Post, lawmakers were “angry” that Director Jarvis knew about the harassment, but made slow or insufficient efforts to discipline managers and employees who were engaged in misconduct. No one has been terminated. While the employee was moved to another park, the supervisor remained. “What does that say to the women? Your leadership is lacking. You’re failing the system,” the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee bellowed during the hearing.

Ethical Underpinnings

Leaders at any organization, including supervisors and directors, are responsible for fostering a harassment-free and supportive workplace for all employees. Leaders should not engage in abusive or harassing behavior, should stop harassment and discrimination when they see it, and take steps to stop future incidents of misconduct. This necessarily includes complying with state and federal discrimination laws, and increasingly should include laying a compliance foundation in company culture and attitudes.

In the case of the National Park Service, at least three employees did not believe there was enough institutional support to immediately report their experiences of sexual harassment. The apparent unwillingness to make victims feel safe coming forward by imposing consequences for sexual harassment reveals a culture lacking ethical underpinnings, as shown by top leadership decisions in this case.

Building a strong culture that does not tolerate discrimination and harassment informs everyday decisions before they ignite legal firestorms, but it also says something about an organization’s ethics. An organization with robust and effective anti-harassment and ethics programs changes attitudes and creates a climate where employees treat each other with respect and make the right decisions. Strong anti-harassment and ethics training programs help cultivate a culture of openness and trust in your organization, empowering your employees to make sound ethical decisions, and encouraging them to challenge bad behavior and unethical conduct when they see it.

LawRoom provides online compliance training on sexual harassmentethics, FCPA and data security to thousands of companies and universities. To learn more, visit us here:

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Douglas Kelly
Douglas Kelly is EverFi's lead legal editor. He writes on corporate compliance and culture, analyzing new case law, legislation and regulations affecting US companies. Before joining EverFi, he litigated federal and state employment cases and wrote about legal trends. He earned his JD from Berkeley Law and BBA from Emory University.

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