Preventing Sexual Harassment:

DOD Needs Greater Leadership Commitment and an Oversight Framework

GAO-11-809: Published: Sep 21, 2011. Publicly Released: Oct 25, 2011.

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Sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination that can jeopardize the military's combat readiness and mission accomplishment by weakening interpersonal bonds and eroding unit cohesion. GAO was asked to examine the most current available data on sexual harassment in the military and to assess the Department of Defense's (DOD) efforts to address this issue. GAO evaluated the extent to which DOD (1) has developed and implemented policies and programs to help prevent and address incidents of sexual harassment involving servicemembers, (2) has visibility over the occurrence of sexual harassment involving servicemembers, and (3) provides oversight of its policies and programs for addressing incidents of sexual harassment. To conduct this review, GAO analyzed DOD and service policies and DOD's available sexual harassment complaint data. GAO also conducted small-group discussions and administered a nongeneralizable survey during site visits to six military installations.

DOD has a long-standing policy aimed at providing an environment that is free from sexual harassment, and each of the military services has implemented its own polices and a program for addressing sexual harassment; however, some aspects of its policy and programs could be improved. For example, according to a 2010 DOD survey, while the majority of active duty servicemembers indicated that they believe that their immediate supervisor makes honest and reasonable efforts to stop sexual harassment, an estimated 25 percent of servicemembers indicated they did not know whether or did not believe their supervisor made such efforts. DOD's survey also found that an estimated 41 percent of servicemembers indicated that in their work group people would be able to get away with sexual harassment to some extent, even if it were reported. Similarly, GAO's nongeneralizable survey of active duty servicemembers found that 64 of 264 females and 53 of 319 males did not believe or were unsure of whether their direct supervisor created a climate that discourages sexual harassment from occurring. GAO also found that DOD has not held commanders accountable for completing required assessments of the equal opportunity climates in their commands. Further, GAO found that DOD does not have adequate guidance on how incidents of sexual harassment should be handled in environments wherein two or more of the services are operating together, resulting in confusion or reducing servicemembers' satisfaction with how complaints are handled. GAO found that DOD has limited visibility over the occurrence of sexual harassment because not all military installations and commands report sexual harassment complaint data to their respective service-level sexual harassment program offices and found that the department does not have a set of uniform data elements with which to collect such data. GAO also found that servicemembers resolve most complaints of sexual harassment informally rather than report them formally. Estimates from DOD's survey found that the majority of servicemembers who felt they were harassed sexually chose not to formally report the incident. Similarly, GAO's survey found that 82 of 583 servicemembers indicated that they had been harassed sexually during the preceding 12 months; of these, only 4 indicated that they had reported the incident formally. GAO found several reasons why servicemembers may choose not to report an incident, including the belief that the incident was not sufficiently serious to report or that the incident would not be taken seriously if reported. DOD has established some oversight requirements but has exercised little oversight of its policies and programs for addressing incidents of sexual harassment. GAO found that the office responsible for overseeing DOD's sexual harassment policies and programs has not developed an oversight framework--including clear goals, objectives, milestones, and metrics for measuring progress--to guide its efforts. For example, although DOD requires the services to provide an annual assessment of their programs, including specific data for sexual harassment complaints, DOD has not enforced these reporting requirements for almost a decade. Moreover, DOD's resources for oversight of this area are limited to one person, who has multiple other responsibilities. As a result, decision makers in DOD do not have the information they need to provide effective oversight, or assess the effectiveness, of the department's policies and programs. GAO is making a total of five recommendations to improve the implementation and oversight of DOD's sexual harassment policies and programs, such as specifying uniform data elements when collecting and reporting complaint data and developing an oversight framework to help guide the department's efforts. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendations and noted it will develop an executable plan, prioritize actions, and address resourcing for the changes recommended.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD has updated its guidance on sexual harassment, but it has not yet implemented the recommendation. DOD concurred with this recommendation and stated that it would collaborate with the military services to systematically review existing accountability methods, with the goal of developing an overarching strategy. According to DOD, a 2013 memorandum from the Secretary of Defense on sexual assault prevention and response outlined requirements addressing leadership accountability for preventing sexual harassment. The Secretary of Defense also issued a memorandum addressing prevention and response of sexual harassment in 2014, and DOD updated its guidance on sexual harassment in 2015. In 2016, DOD stated that further revisions to guidance were forthcoming to provide a framework for oversight of sexual harassment. This framework, among other things, would address standards for holding leaders accountable for promoting, supporting, and enforcing sexual harassment policies. As of January 2017, those revisions had not been issued. We will continue to monitor DOD's actions.

    Recommendation: To improve leadership's commitment to preventing and responding to incidents of sexual harassment, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to develop a strategy for holding individuals in positions of leadership accountable for promoting, supporting, and enforcing the department's sexual harassment policies and programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD has updated its guidance on sexual harassment, including a requirement for sharing the results of command climate assessments with the next higher level of command, but has not yet implemented an oversight mechanism to verify and track commanders' compliance with requirements to conduct such assessments. DOD concurred with this recommendation and stated that it would implement the recommendation through revisions to its guidance. According to DOD, a 2013 memorandum from the Secretary of Defense on sexual assault prevention and response outlined requirements addressing leadership accountability for preventing sexual harassment. The memorandum included a requirement that the results of command climate surveys be provided to the next level up in the chain of command, and it directed service chiefs, through their respective military department secretaries, to develop methods to assess the performance of commanders in establishing command climates of dignity and respect. The Secretary of Defense also issued a memorandum addressing prevention and response of sexual harassment in 2014, and DOD updated its guidance on sexual harassment in 2015. In 2016, DOD stated that further revisions to guidance were forthcoming to provide a framework for oversight of sexual harassment. This framework, among other things, would address standards for holding leaders accountable for promoting, supporting, and enforcing sexual harassment policies. As of January 2017, those revisions had not yet been issued. We will continue to monitor DOD's actions.

    Recommendation: To improve implementation of the department's sexual harassment policies and programs, the Secretary of Defense should direct the service secretaries to verify or track military commanders' compliance with existing requirements that commanders periodically determine their organizational health and functioning effectiveness by periodically assessing their equal opportunity climate through "command climate" assessments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD has updated its guidance on sexual harassment, but has not implemented the recommendation. DOD concurred with this recommendation and stated that it would collaborate with the military services to propose specific guidance on how incidents of sexual harassment should be handled in joint environments (where more than one service is operating). According to DOD, a 2013 memorandum from the Secretary of Defense on sexual assault prevention and response outlined requirements addressing leadership accountability for preventing sexual harassment. The Secretary of Defense also issued a memorandum addressing prevention and response of sexual harassment in 2014, and DOD updated its guidance on sexual harassment in 2015. In 2016, DOD stated that its revised guidance had significantly improved standardization and accountability across all the services, as well as the National Guard Bureau, on the handling of sexual harassment incidents in joint environments. However, DOD has not issued specific guidance on handling sexual harassment incidents in joint environments.

    Recommendation: To improve implementation of the department's sexual harassment policies and programs, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to develop guidance on how incidents of sexual harassment should be handled in environments wherein two or more of the services are operating together.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD has enhanced its data collection on sexual harassment complaints but has not implemented the recommendation. DOD concurred with the recommendation and stated that it would collaborate with the military services to improve complaint data and develop uniform data elements. In 2014, in response to a provision of the defense authorization act, DOD issued a report to Congress on sexual harassment complaints covering fiscal year 2013. According to DOD?s report, the complaint data was compiled based on a standard template that was developed in conjunction with the military services. The Secretary of Defense also issued a memorandum addressing prevention and response of sexual harassment in 2014, and DOD updated its guidance on sexual harassment in 2015. In 2016, DOD stated that its revised guidance requires the services to provide complete and accurate data on sexual harassment incidents and to capture this information with uniform data and reporting requirements. Although DOD has taken some steps toward better data collection, DOD has not instituted procedures to ensure that complaint data are accurate and complete and that services collect and report this information using uniform data elements.

    Recommendation: To improve DOD's visibility over formal sexual harassment complaints involving active duty servicemembers, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to take steps to ensure that the services' complaint data are complete and accurate and establish reporting requirements specifying uniform data elements that the services should use when collecting and reporting information on formal sexual harassment complaints.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation and stated that as part of its revised guidance it proposed to strengthen and institutionalize the responsibilities and authorities needed for successful implementation of the department's sexual harassment policies. During 2012, DOD reported that it expected to implement such a proposal in its revised military equal opportunity program guidance. DOD projected the department would issue this guidance in March 2013. In the July 2014 DAMIS report, DOD noted that DODI 1020.cc calls for establishment of a senior leadership advisory forum comprised of leaders and managers in the grade of at least senior executive service level or Flag/General Officer, such as the Defense Human Resource Board or its equivalent to provide oversight and an annual review of the DoD Military Equal Opportunity programs and provide advice and recommendations to the USD (P&R) in Paragraph 3, "Policy." DOD further noted that DODI 1020.cc further assigns the responsibility for establishing procedures for senior leader recurring oversight reviews of selected categories of military personnel programs and issuance of data calls that will be used by each Military Service and the National Guard Bureau to establish a framework of recurring analytical reviews to the Director, Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity in Enclosure 4, "Responsibilities."As of September 2015, DOD has not taken action to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance oversight of the department's program to help prevent and to address incidents of sexual harassment involving servicemembers, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to ensure that the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity develops and aggressively implements an oversight framework to help guide the department's efforts. At a minimum, such a framework should contain long-term goals, objectives, and milestones; strategies to accomplish goals; criteria for measuring progress; and results-oriented performance measures to assess the effectiveness of the department's sexual harassment policies and programs. Such a framework should also identify and include a plan for ensuring that adequate resources are available to carry out the office's oversight responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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