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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
1. 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.
Open
DOD concurred with our recommendation and stated that leadership accountability is essential to the success of the department's efforts to prevent sexual harassment. In February 2018, DOD took action toward addressing this recommendation and released an update to DOD Instruction 1020.03, Harassment Prevention and Response in the Armed Forces, that directs DOD's Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, to ensure that DOD components' harassment prevention and response programs incorporate, at a minimum, compliance standards for promoting, supporting, and enforcing polices, plans, and programs. As of March 2021, DOD had not completed development of a strategy with the compliance standards. In The William M. (Mac) Thornberry NDAA for Fiscal Year 2021, Congress required the Secretary of Defense to provide a report to the defense committees on the actions taken to implement this recommendation not later than one year after enactment. Specifically, it requires the Secretary of Defense to develop and implement a DOD-wide strategy to hold individuals in positions of leadership in the department accountable for the promotion, support, and enforcement of the department's policies and programs on sexual harassment. We will continue to monitor DOD actions on this issue.
Department of Defense 2. 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.
Open
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 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 February 2020, DOD's Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion stated that the department had refocused its efforts to address this recommendation and will be issuing revised policies no later than September 30, 2020. However, as of March 2021, DOD has yet to develop and implement a policy to verify and track commanders' compliance with existing requirements, as we recommended. We will continue to monitor DOD's actions.
Department of Defense 3. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
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.
Department of Defense 4. 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.
Closed - Not Implemented
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.
Department of Defense
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
5. 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.
Open
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. In February 2018, DOD took action toward addressing this recommendation and issued an update to DOD Instruction 1020.03, Harassment Prevention and Response in the Armed Forces, that directs DOD's Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to ensure that DOD components' harassment prevention and response programs incorporate , at a minimum, (1) long-term goals, objectives, and milestones; (2) results-oriented performance measures to assess effectiveness; and (3) compliance standards for promoting, supporting, and enforcing policies, plans, and programs. As of March 2021, DOD has not developed and aggressively implemented an oversight framework, as we recommended. However, officials with DOD's Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are planning to issue a new sexual harassment prevention strategy sometime in 2021. Further, in the William M. (Mac) Thornberry NDAA for Fiscal Year 2021, Congress required the Secretary of Defense to provide a report to the defense committees on the actions taken to implement this recommendation not later than one year after enactment. Specifically, it requires the Secretary of Defense to develop and implement a strategy that consists of an oversight framework for the department's efforts to promote, support, and enforce policies and programs on sexual harassment. We will continue to monitor DOD actions on this issue.We will continue to monitor DOD's actions.

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