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How Prevalent Is Sexual Harassment at Federal Workplaces?

January 5th, 2022
sexual harassment

Even though the U.S. federal government creates and enforces laws to combat workplace sexual harassment, their employees are not immune from having to face this kind of abuse. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a report called the Federal #MeToo, and it examined the prevalence of sexual harassment in federal workplaces. Just as importantly, it investigated how well the federal government is addressing the problem. According to the report, sexual harassment exists in all levels of every federal agency. From 2015 to 2018, federal employees had filed more than 2,200 sexual harassment claims, with more than 80 percent of these being filed by women. 

There were approximately 2.1 million civilian workers employed by the federal government in 2020, and federal workplace sexual harassment continues to be a significant problem. The number of employee claims has been increasing steadily over the past few years, but researchers agree that many employees do not complain about the abuse. From all indications, this problem will not be disappearing anytime soon.

What Did the Federal #MeToo Report Find?

Although it is estimated that one out of every seven federal employees experiences sexually harassing behaviors, it often goes unreported in federal workplaces. The harassment can be based on an unwelcome sexual attraction, but is more about power, dominance, and control. It appears abused employees may not know who to turn to for help, and a lack of standard policies procedures for doing so makes things worse.

The Federal #MeToo also found that contractors and interns are even more vulnerable to sexual harassment in these workplaces because they are not entitled to the same protections as other workers. Women face the highest risk of harassment, but locally employed staff and foreign nationals are also at higher risk. When the sexual harassment happens in overseas posts, it is often not handled in the right way. To complicate matters further, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint process is complex, making it more difficult for victims to speak out and seek justice for the harassment. In essence, most federal agencies have ineffective anti-harassment programs.

It is estimated that three out of every four sexually harassed federal employees never report the issue to anyone who could successfully address the problem. Federal #MeToo also reported that sexual harassment contributes to ongoing gender pay gaps, increased use of leave time, and general attrition of women. The final recommendations posited that the best way to combat workplace sexual harassment was to change workplace cultures. To do this, the federal government offices would need to demonstrate the complaints are encouraged and that all employees need to work together for safer, more effective workplaces. 

Were There Any Other Pertinent Findings?

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights also issued a press release that explained their Federal #MeToo findings in more detail. They pointed out that there are fewer workplace protections for the federal employees when compared with private sector employees, mostly owing to outdated laws. There is also a widespread fear of workplace retaliation for reporting misconduct; employees fear they will be further mistreated and might even lose their jobs. 

Lower caps on monetary damages for federal employee sexual harassment lawsuits is another problem because it discourages victims from speaking out.  In their minds, employees may wonder if it is really worth it. On top of all that, the federal government has structural power imbalances plus gender disparities, which are both strong indicators of workplace sexual harassment.

The Commission advised federal agencies to start implementing required anti-harassment training, to establish uniform penalties across the board, to stop transferring harassers to other agencies or departments, and to shield victims from retaliation. They also recommended that Congress update certain protections, such as increasing those financial caps and the time restraints associated with sexual harassment claims.  Other recommendations included statutory protections for federal government interns and contractors, and a requirement to report findings of sexual harassment to the Office of Special Counsel. This is an unbiased, independent authority that can ensure that sexual harassment protections are adequately enforced.

Have Other Reports Been Made?

Years back, the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) took steps to broaden the definition for workplace sexual behaviors years ago, to include uninvited:

  • Correspondence and materials of a sexual nature
  • Purposeful touching, pinching, cornering, and leaning over
  • Sexually suggestive gestures and looks
  • Pressure for dates and/or sexual favors
  • Sexual jokes, teasing, comments, or questions

Another MSPB survey looked at the incidents of workplace harassment at different federal agencies:

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs: 22 percent of their employees reported being sexually harassed
  • The Department of Homeland Security: 18 percent
  • Environment Protection Agency:  15.9 percent
  • Office of Personnel Management: 15.7 percent
  • State Department:  15.3 percent 

On the lower end was the Securities and Exchange Commission at 8.2 percent, the General Services Administration at 8.5 percent, the Army at 9.3 percent, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation at 9.3 percent, and NASA at 9.5 percent. This survey also queried respondents to see if they had experienced unwelcome, discriminatory behaviors based on sex or gender, unwelcome behaviors of sexual natures, and pressures to engage in unwanted sexual behaviors. 

Am I Being Sexually Harassed at Work?

The EEOC arbitrates federal employee sexual harassment complaints, and they are often closely involved with these cases. They define sexual harassment as unwelcome, unwanted sexual advances; this can be touching, comments, emails, and texts, for example. The definition also includes other verbal or physical actions of a sexual nature, or requests for sexual favors. The incidents must be sufficiently severe or frequent enough to impact the victim’s job performance, their salary, duties, opportunities for advance, and so forth. Creating an offensive, hostile work environment or intimidating workplace also qualifies. A one-time unwelcome kiss on the lips might not be considered to be severe or prevalent.

Workplace sexual harassment can be blatantly obvious or much more subtle, and sometimes victims do not even realize that they are being targeted. For example, if an employee had a previous consensual personal sexual relationship with another employee and that ended, the same behavior may be unwelcome by one party afterwards. Even if the two employees were a couple at one point, once the relationship ends, flirtatious comments, unwelcome touching, and similar behaviors afterwards could be considered as harassment.

Sexual orientation is not always relevant in these kinds of harassment cases. Although it happens between two people of the same or opposite sex, a heterosexual male can sexually harass another heterosexual male in different ways. The abuser is also not always a supervisor, though this can be a more common scenario. Employees of equal standing, managers, company owners, and outside vendors and contractors often sexually harass employees. You could also be a victim even if you are not the intended target; should you witness the behavior and are affected by it, you might also have a case.

The best way to understand if and how you are being sexually harassed at work is to check your employer’s anti-harassment policy. The EEOC requires all federal agencies to have these policies, and they must include a clear explanation of what qualifies as prohibited conduct, as well as a detailed description of the complaint process and channels for doing so. There also needs to be a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation process, with assurances that the complainant’s confidentiality will be protected. There also must be assurances that these employees will be protected from employer retaliation after the complaints have been made.

Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Help Federal Employees with Workplace Sexual Harassment Claims

No federal agencies should allow workplace sexual harassment, but even though it is against the law, it still happens and is not acceptable. For help with any type of sexual harassment, contact the compassionate, experienced Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. today. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey.

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