Sexual Harassment: Inconsistent and Incomplete Policies and Information Hinder VA's Efforts to Protect Employees

GAO-20-387 Published: Jun 15, 2020. Publicly Released: Jul 15, 2020.
Jump To:
Fast Facts

A federal survey estimates that 22% of Veterans Affairs employees experienced workplace sexual harassment in 2014-2016. VA has policies to prevent and address harassment, but some are inconsistent and incomplete.

For example, the person who oversees personnel functions (e.g., hiring, promotions) is the same person who oversees the complaint process. This can create a conflict of interest.

In addition, VA doesn’t centrally collect information on all complaints—making it harder to direct its resources for preventing and addressing sexual harassment where they’re needed most.

Our 7 recommendations address these and other issues we found.

Department of Veterans Affairs

Department of Veterans Affairs

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment in the workplace, but some aspects of the policies and of the complaint processes may hinder those efforts.

Misalignment of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Director position: VA's EEO Director oversees both the EEO complaint process, which includes addressing sexual harassment complaints, and general personnel functions. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), this dual role does not adhere to one of its key directives and creates a potential conflict of interest when handling EEO issues because the EEO process often scrutinizes and challenges the impacts of personnel decisions.

Incomplete or outdated policies and information: VA has an overarching policy that outlines its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment of its employees. However, some additional policies and information documents at the agency and administration levels are not consistent with VA's overarching policy, and are outdated or are missing information. For example, they may not include all options employees have for reporting sexual harassment, which could result in confusion among employees and managers.

Delayed finalization of Harassment Prevention Program (HPP): VA has not formally approved the directive or the implementing guidance for the 4-year-old HPP, which is intended to prevent harassment and address it before it becomes unlawful; lack of formal approval could limit the program's effectiveness.

VA uses complaint data to understand the extent of sexual harassment and target resources to prevent and address it. However, such data are incomplete. For example, VA compiles information on allegations made through the EEO process and HPP (e.g., 180 sexual harassment cases were filed through the EEO process and HPP in fiscal year 2019), but does not require managers who receive complaints to report them to VA centrally. As a result, VA is not aware of all sexual harassment allegations across the agency. Without these data, VA may miss opportunities to better target its resources and to prevent and address sexual harassment.

VA provides training to its employees, but the required training does not have in-depth information on identifying and addressing sexual harassment. These trainings have one or no sexual harassment scenarios to help employees understand prohibited behaviors and do not mention HPP. Some facilities within VA's administrations—which include the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, and National Cemetery Administration—supplement the training, but providing additional information is not mandatory. Requiring broader training material, such as with more examples of sexual harassment and information on HPP, could improve VA employees' knowledge of the agency's sexual harassment policies and could help to prevent sexual harassment or ensure that it is properly handled when it does occur.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to estimates from a recent federal survey, 18 to 27 percent of VA employees experienced some form of sexual harassment at work from mid-2014 through mid-2016. Sexual harassment negatively affects employees and employers and, if severe or pervasive, can constitute unlawful employment discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

GAO was asked to review VA's efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment of its employees. This report examines (1) the extent to which VA has policies to prevent and address sexual harassment, (2) how available data inform VA about sexual harassment, and (3) the extent to which VA provides training to employees on preventing and addressing sexual harassment. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and policy and program documents; analyzed VA complaint data for fiscal years 2014 through 2019 and data from a 2016 federal survey; and interviewed VA officials at headquarters and select facilities across VA, two union officials, and EEOC officials.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that VA ensure that its EEO Director position is not responsible for personnel functions; require managers to report sexual harassment centrally; and require additional employee training. VA concurred with all but the EEO Director position recommendation, which GAO continues to believe is warranted.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Veterans Affairs
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
VA's Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration/Operations, Security, and Preparedness should realign VA's EEO Director position to adhere to the applicable EEOC directive by ensuring the position is not responsible for personnel functions. (Recommendation 1)
Open
VA did not agree with our recommendation. Nevertheless, in September 2020, VA met with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to discuss, among other things, alignment of VA's Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Director position. VA plans to continue to work with EEOC to assess the alignment of this position. In February 2022, VA said it has no specific plans to realign the VA EEO Director position, but continues to consider this along with other efforts in support of diversity and inclusion. More recently, in July 2022, VA said that it no longer agrees with the recommendation and has no plans for realignment. We will close this recommendation when VA makes any needed changes to the EEO Director position, according to EEOC, and EEOC agrees that VA's EEO Director position is appropriately aligned.
Department of Veterans Affairs
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
VA's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Resolution Management should complete VA's EEO Program Manager realignment initiative at VBA and VHA in accordance with VA policy. (Recommendation 2)
Open
VA agreed with our recommendation. As of April 2022, VA had realigned most of its EEO Program Managers at VBA and developed a plan to complete the remaining VBA realignment. In April 2021, VA said it was developing a plan to address the realignment of EEO Program Managers at VHA. However, in April 2022, VA said that there are no plans to realign VHA EEO Program Managers. More recently, VA acknowledged a change was needed and indicated one option would be to reclassify the VHA EEO Program Managers. However, VA did not indicate whether the roles and responsibilities would also change. To implement our recommendation, VA needs to complete the EEO Program Manager realignment at VBA and VHA to help ensure there is not potential conflict of interest.
Department of Veterans Affairs VA's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Resolution Management should ensure that ORM reviews all existing VA and administration policies and information documents to make sure they are current, complete, and aligned with VA's sexual harassment policy. (Recommendation 3)
Open
VA agreed with our recommendation. VA created a work group to address this recommendation. In June 2022, VA said that ORMDI (formerly ORM) is finalizing procedures to conduct a review and ensure that all policies and information are current and complete. VA said that it will implement its review by the end of fiscal year 2022. However, VA does not have a documented plan for the review process. We will close this recommendation when VA has completed reviewing for consistency all existing VA and administration sexual harassment policies and information, and has an ongoing review process for this purpose.
Department of Veterans Affairs VA's Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration/Operations, Security, and Preparedness, in consultation with ORM, should finalize the HPP directive and handbook to formalize HPP. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
VA finalized the Harassment Prevention Program Directive in December 2020. In March 2022, VA finalized the Harassment Prevention Program Handbook, which provides guidance, instructions and mandatory procedures for VA organizations and key stakeholders at every level of the organization on processing allegations of harassment and sexual harassment within VA. By implementing this recommendation, VA employees should have a better understanding of the process for addressing sexual harassment complaints and more consistent implementation of the agency's Harassment Prevention Program.
Department of Veterans Affairs VA's Assistant Secretary for Human Resources and Administration/Operations, Security, and Preparedness, in consultation with ORM, should require managers to report all sexual harassment complaints they receive to ORM and ORM should use this information—and other available data about sexual harassment prevalence at VA—to assess and improve its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment. (Recommendation 5)
Open
VA agreed with our recommendation. VA now requires managers to report allegations of sexual harassment to its Harassment Prevention Program (HPP) and created a tracking system for managers to report sexual harassment. VA said it was in the process of training employees on the system and outlined plans to review other internal information on sexual harassment complaints. We will close this recommendation when the tracking system is successfully implemented and when VA is using this information, along with other available data about sexual harassment prevalence at VA, to assess and improve its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment.
Department of Veterans Affairs VA's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Resolution Management should develop and implement policies and procedures to ensure that, for sexual harassment complaints addressed through the management process, any corrective actions decided on are implemented, including requiring managers and supervisors to provide evidence to ORM that these actions occurred. (Recommendation 6)
Open
VA agreed with our recommendation. VA's 2022 Harassment Prevention Program (HPP) handbook outlines that HPP staff should ensure that imposition of corrective action is prompt, consistent, and proportionate to the severity of harassment. According to VA, managers should report corrective action taken using its new tracking system. However, the HPP handbook does not include information on how managers should report corrective actions were completed, including what evidence should be provided. We will close this recommendation when the tracking system is successfully implemented, to include the reporting of outcomes and corrective actions (including related evidence) in addition to allegations, and when policies and procedures are implemented to use this system to ensure that corrective actions decided on are implemented.
Department of Veterans Affairs VA's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Resolution Management should require additional training for all VA employees on identifying and addressing sexual harassment, including the HPP process. For instance, VA could make training that is currently offered in some facilities mandatory for all employees (e.g., Prevention of Sexual Harassment) or develop new mandatory training. (Recommendation 7)
Closed – Implemented
VA developed new required training courses for both employees and managers. VA stated that the new trainings replaced those in place at the time of our 2020 review. The new training includes more in-depth information and scenarios on identifying and addressing sexual harassment, as well as information on the Harassment Prevention Program (HPP) process. By implementing this recommendation, VA employees will be better informed on sexual harassment behaviors and their avenues for addressing such behaviors.

Full Report

GAO Contacts