Fast Facts

Sexual harassment and assault in the workplace can cause long-term trauma for victims and may affect the Department of Defense's more than 900,000 federal civilian employees.

DOD estimated that about 49,700 of its civilian employees experienced sexual harassment and about 2,500 experienced work-related sexual assault in FY2018, but it does not fully track reports of these behaviors. Also, civilian employees may not have access to DOD-provided reporting and support services available to servicemembers.

Our 19 recommendations include tracking civilian sexual harassment and assault incidents and expanding access to reporting and support services.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) has taken steps to track reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault involving its federal civilian employees, but its visibility over both types of incidents is hindered by guidance and information-sharing challenges. While employees may not report all incidents for a variety of reasons, DOD also lacks visibility over those incidents that have been reported. For example, from fiscal years 2015 through 2019, DOD recorded 370 civilian employees as victims of sexual assault and 199 civilian employees as alleged offenders. However, these data do not include all incidents of sexual assault reported over this time period. Specifically, based on DOD guidance, examples of incidents that could be excluded from these data include those involving civilian employee victims (1) occurring in the continental United States, (2) employed by DOD components other than the military services, such as defense agencies, and (3) who are also military dependents. Without guidance that addresses these areas, DOD does not know the extent to which its civilian workforce has reported work-related sexual assault worldwide.

Number of Department of Defense Federal Civilian Employees Recorded as Victims or Alleged Offenders in Reported Sexual Assault Incidents, Fiscal Years 2015-2019

Number of Department of Defense Federal Civilian Employees Recorded as Victims or Alleged Offenders in Reported Sexual Assault Incidents, Fiscal Years 2015-2019

While DOD has developed policies and procedures to respond to and resolve sexual harassment and sexual assault incidents involving federal civilian employees, gaps exist. For example, DOD issued guidance in June 2020 directing components to establish anti-harassment programs, but it lacks details regarding how such programs should be structured. Without clarifying guidance, components can establish programs that do not align with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance for model anti-harassment programs. Additionally, GAO found that DOD civilian employees' ability to make restricted reports of sexual assault—confidential disclosures that do not initiate official investigations, but allow the victim to receive DOD-provided sexual assault support services—varies across components. According to DOD officials, they have not taken action to resolve this variation due to conflicts with federal statute, among other things. By reporting to and requesting any needed actions from Congress to resolve any conflicts with statute, the department can alleviate such inconsistencies and minimize legal risks for DOD components.

Why GAO Did This Study

With nearly 900,000 federal civilian employees around the world, DOD has responsibilities for preventing and responding to sexual harassment and assault within its workforce. In fiscal year 2018, DOD estimated that about 49,700 civilian employees experienced sexual harassment and about 2,500 civilian employees experienced work-related sexual assault in the prior year.

House Report 116-120 included a provision for GAO to review DOD's prevention of and response to sexual harassment and assault involving DOD federal civilian employees. GAO's report examines, among other things, the extent to which DOD has (1) visibility over such reported incidents, and (2) developed and implemented policies and procedures to respond to and resolve these incidents. GAO reviewed policies and guidance; analyzed program data from fiscal years 2015 through 2019; interviewed officials at a nongeneralizable sample of five military installations; evaluated DOD training materials; and interviewed DOD, service, and civilian officials.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 19 recommendations, including that DOD issue guidance for comprehensive tracking of civilian work-related sexual assaults, enhance guidance on the structure of anti-harassment programs for civilians, and report to and request any needed actions from Congress on the ability of civilian employees to make restricted reports of sexual assault. As discussed in the report, DOD generally concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense 1. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, takes steps to assure that as the department finalizes the development of the central repository for Equal Employment Opportunity data, the planned repository includes data for all DOD components and is updated frequently, such as on a quarterly basis. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 2. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, expands guidance that specifies and defines uniform data elements that all DOD components should use when collecting and reporting on allegations of harassment made by DOD federal civilian employees outside of the Equal Employment Opportunity process, such as information about the parties involved, the type of harassment, and actions taken to respond to the allegation. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 3. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, clarifies guidance regarding the requirement for the Secretaries of the military departments to maintain data on informal complaints of harassment, including the definition of an informal complaint for tracking purposes; how such data should be maintained, including by a headquarters-level organization; and which informal complaints should be reported to the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on an annual basis. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 4. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy and the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, issues guidance for the military departments to comprehensively track information about reported work-related sexual assaults involving DOD federal civilian employee victims in the continental United States, regardless of eligibility for DOD-provided sexual assault support services, including the status and affiliation of the victim and alleged offender and actions taken by DOD in response, such as any referrals or support services provided. (Recommendation 4)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 5. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy and the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, issues guidance that requires all DOD components, including agencies and field activities, to track reported work-related sexual assaults involving their federal civilian employees as victims or alleged offenders, including the specific data elements to be collected, such as status and affiliation of the victim and alleged offender and actions taken by DOD in response, and common definitions for those data elements. (Recommendation 5)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 6. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, issues guidance that directs Sexual Assault Response Coordinators to ensure that all DOD civilian employee victims of sexual assault are categorized in the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database as both federal civilian employees and military dependents, if applicable, for work-related incidents of sexual assault. (Recommendation 6)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 7. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, take steps to provide DOD-credentialed Sexual Assault Response Coordinators across the department, including coordinators assigned to an agency or field activity, access to record and review their components' reported work-related sexual assaults in the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database. (Recommendation 7)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 8. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness takes steps to increase distribution of the biannual DOD Civilian Employee Workplace and Gender Relations reports to ensure that all relevant offices with a responsibility for sexual harassment and assault prevention and response have access to the complete results for use in informing program efforts. These steps could include providing copies of the biannual reports to the Equal Employment Opportunity and Sexual Assault Prevention and Response offices of all DOD components. (Recommendation 8)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 9. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, clarifies guidance specifying how DOD components' anti-harassment programs should be separated from the formal EEO process when the EEO office oversees the anti-harassment program. (Recommendation 9)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 10. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Secretaries of the military departments, issues guidance that clearly defines which civilians under 10 U.S.C. § 1561 are eligible for command investigations of complaints alleging sexual harassment. (Recommendation 10)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 11. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy, establishes guidance requiring the establishment of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response programs for federal civilian employees of DOD components, including agencies and field activities, where they do not currently exist. For example, DOD may establish or designate a program for use by multiple DOD agencies or require each component to establish its own program based on common department-wide standards. (Recommendation 11)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 12. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and the Secretaries of the military departments, reports to the congressional defense committees on the status of restricted reporting for DOD federal civilian employee victims of sexual assault. This should include, but not be limited to, the history of restricted reporting for DOD federal civilian employees by military department, the anticipated benefits and challenges of extending restricted reporting to DOD federal civilian employees, and requests for congressional actions, if any, that are considered appropriate and necessary to extend restricted reporting to DOD federal civilian employees who are otherwise eligible to file unrestricted reports of sexual assault. (Recommendation 12)
Open
DOD generally concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 13. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy, conducts an analysis to determine the feasibility, benefits, and challenges of expanding eligibility for filing unrestricted reports and providing sexual assault support services to all DOD federal civilian employees within the continental United States and reports to Congress on the findings of this analysis. (Recommendation 13)
Open
DOD generally concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 14. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy, clarifies guidance regarding notification responsibilities of SAPR personnel, if any, when a DOD federal civilian employee who is either not eligible or does not file a restricted or unrestricted report discloses work-related sexual assault. (Recommendation 14)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of the Navy 15. The Secretary of the Navy should clarify guidance regarding the responsibilities, if any, of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response personnel in notifying military criminal investigative organizations of unrestricted reports of sexual assault in accordance with Department of Defense Instruction 6495.02 to ensure immediacy of these reports. (Recommendation 15)
Open
The Navy concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 16. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy and the Director of the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, issues additional guidance to clearly specify minimum frequency and required content for mandatory sexual harassment training for DOD federal civilian employees in line with leading practices. (Recommendation 16)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 17. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy and the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, issues guidance for all DOD components to provide training on sexual assault prevention and response to all DOD federal civilian employees and military leaders who supervise federal civilian employees. The guidance should include, but not be limited to, the minimum frequency for such training and required content, in line with leading practices identified by subject-matter experts, such as those identified by GAO or those currently required in Sexual Assault Prevention and Response training for servicemembers, appropriately adapted for the civilian workforce. (Recommendation 17)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 18. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy and the Director of the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, incorporates clearly detailed DOD-wide sexual harassment prevention efforts specific to DOD federal civilian employees in existing or additional strategic guidance. (Recommendation 18)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.
Department of Defense 19. The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy and the Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, incorporates clearly detailed DOD-wide sexual assault prevention efforts specific to DOD federal civilian employees in existing or additional strategic guidance. (Recommendation 19)
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of February 2021, this recommendation remains open.

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