New research finds the prevalence of sexual harassment decreasing but still common in federal agencies, despite many employees understanding that harassing behavior is wrong.
The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) recently released Sexual Harassment in Federal Workplaces: Understanding and Addressing the Problem, an 88-page report examining federal employees’ understanding of sexual harassment, the prevalence of specific sexual harassment behaviors and actions taken by those who experience harassment. The new report represents the organization’s fourth on the topic, following earlier publications in 1981, 1988 and 1995. While the MSPB shared the initial findings of this research in a March 2018 research brief, the full report could not be released until a quorum was restored at MSPB.
As far as understanding what constitutes sexual harassment, “federal employees are increasingly likely to correctly identify behaviors that might be considered sexual harassment in the workplace,” the report read.
“Further, opinions of men and women about behaviors that may be sexual harassment have converged, primarily because men are now more likely to agree that a behavior is or may be viewed as sexual harassment. Consequently, there is less room for misunderstanding and less opportunity for employees to inadvertently engage in behaviors that others interpret as sexual harassment.”
Nevertheless, sexual harassment persists in federal agencies. The MSPB finds that sexual harassment has decreased in the federal workplace as measured by the surveys the organization has conducted throughout the past 40 years. But this year’s report still sees 14.3% of federal employees saying they have experienced one or more types of sexual harassment.
Harassment Comes in Many Forms
The most recent survey identified 12 listed forms of sexual harassment, including the most common forms such as exposure to sexually oriented conversations; unwelcome invasion of personal space; unwelcome sexual teasing, jokes, comments or questions; and derogatory or unprofessional terms related to sex or gender. Unwelcome sexually suggestive looks or glances also made the list.
This year’s report found that women were found more than twice as likely as men—20.9% of female employees, compared to 8.7% of male employees—to have experienced one or more of these forms of harassment. And, as in years past, an even larger number of employees (28.9% of female and 22.7% of male federal workers) reported witnessing such behaviors in their workplace over the last two years.
“The survey data show that sexual harassment can be committed by anyone present in the workforce,” according to the MSPB. “In terms of gender, a harasser is most frequently a man acting alone, particularly when the target is a woman. However, women also commit harassment, most commonly acting as an individual and targeting a man.”
With regard to role, the 2022 report sees harassment typically being committed by an agency employee, either at the peer level or by someone in a position of authority. For instance, 45% of those federal workers who experience sexual harassment attributed this behavior to a co-worker. Eleven percent ascribed this behavior to an immediate supervisor, with 12% and 15% saying the same about a higher-level manager or a customer or other member of the public, respectively.
Faith in the Reporting Process Falters
The same report also finds the federal workforce lacking confidence in the channels available to them for reporting harassment.
Describing the formal complaint process as “a keystone of federal agency anti-discrimination programs,” the MSPB finds that employee views of this process are “mixed.” For example, 61% of employees believe that a formal complaint would be a “very effective” remedy for a hypothetical experience with sexual harassment. But just 11% of workers who had actually been subjected to sexual harassment filed a formal complaint or grievance.
“Reasons for this difference may include fears of retaliation, the low odds of prevailing and a belief that harasser(s) will not be stopped or disciplined, as well as time and cost,” according to the report, which finds 63% of respondents saying they believe management at their organization would act on a report of sexual harassment at the hands of a supervisor.
Among those who did file a formal complaint, 36% said they thought doing so made the situation better, while 32% said they believed it actually made matters worse. Rather, close to 60% of harassment victims took another approach, simply asking the harasser to stop their harassing behavior, or striving to avoid the offender.
While various types of responses come with advantages and disadvantages, “active responses tend to be more effective to actually stop harassment, for both the target and others,” the report noted. “Further, should the harassment continue, demonstrating that the behavior was unwelcome bolsters the employee’s case and provides a basis for future corrective action by the agency, the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] or the courts.”
Avoiding a harasser may only serve to “pass the problem on to the next target,” according to the MSPB, with the report warning that tolerating harassment can embolden the harasser to continue or even escalate such behavior, “because it provides no feedback that the behavior is unwelcome or wrong.”
This reality underscores the notion that federal employees “need better options to put a stop to sexual harassment, whether experienced or observed, and [need] more support for choosing an active response,” according to the report.
“It also suggests that many organizations need to strengthen existing channels and work to earn trust that harassment will be addressed. Increasing the likelihood that employees will speak up, rather than remain silent, could strengthen accountability and lead to better outcomes for all.”
29 December 2022
HR News Article