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

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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Incomplete or outdated policies and information: VA has an overarching policy that outlines its efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment of its employees.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information documents at the agency and administration levels are not consistent with VA's overarching policy, and are outdated or are missing information.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.

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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 1. 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. 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 2. 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. VA plans to complete Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Program Manager realignment at VBA in January 2021. As of January 2021, VA is developing a plan to address the realignment of EEO Program Managers at VHA, which is projected to start in fiscal year 2024. We will close this recommendation when the realignment initiatives are completed at VBA and VHA.
Department of Veterans Affairs 3. 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 that will review its sexual harassment policies for consistency, and plans to implement a review process during the second quarter of fiscal year 2021. We will close this recommendation when VA has completed reviewing for consistency all existing VA and administration sexual harassment policies and information, and has implemented an ongoing review process for this purpose.
Department of Veterans Affairs 4. 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)
Open
VA agreed with our recommendation. VA finalized the Harassment Prevention Program Directive and is working on finalizing the Harassment Prevention Program Handbook. We will close this recommendation when both documents are finalized.
Department of Veterans Affairs 5. 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 created an automated tracking system to report sexual harassment allegations that managers receive to the Harassment Prevention Program. VA is working on a plan for implementing this system by the end of fiscal year 2021. We will close this recommendation when the 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 6. 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 created an automated tracking system to report sexual harassment allegations that managers receive to the Harassment Prevention Program. VA is working on a plan for implementing this system by the end of fiscal year 2021. We will close this recommendation when the 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 7. 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)
Open
VA agreed with our recommendation. VA is working to restructure its sexual harassment training by the end of fiscal year 2021. We will close this recommendation when the restructure is completed for all employees and the training includes additional information (compared to what used to be provided) on identifying and addressing sexual harassment, including the Harassment Prevention Program process.

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