FEMA Workforce: Additional Actions Needed to Help Prevent and Respond to Discrimination and Harassment

GAO-23-105243 Published: Oct 20, 2022. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 2022.
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Fast Facts

A report, based on a 2019 survey, estimated that 29% of FEMA employees experienced workplace discrimination or harassment in the prior year. FEMA has been taking action to address this.

FEMA's efforts incorporated many but not all of the practices recommended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For example, FEMA provides annual mandatory anti-harassment training to employees, but the training doesn't fully explain how to file a complaint. And the training gives examples of misconduct that can occur in an office setting but not in field locations—where many FEMA employees work.

Our recommendations address these and other issues.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency logo and sign laid out on top of the U.S. flag

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—has taken action since fiscal year 2019 to prevent and respond to discrimination and harassment. FEMA created an office to investigate harassment allegations and developed response policies. FEMA also issued its Culture Improvement Action Plan, which includes anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training and communication campaigns.

In April 2022, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that FEMA did not meet 13 requirements in its equal employment opportunity program. FEMA officials said they are taking steps to address these deficiencies and plan to provide EEOC a required compliance report outlining its efforts and progress to address these deficiencies in October 2022.

Further, the EEOC has issued recommended practices for preventing harassment, and FEMA has met most of these practices. For example:

Extent to Which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Met Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Recommended Practices, July 2022

Recommendation
Category
Anti-Harassment
policy
Training Complaint
System
Leadership and
Accountability
Total
Met 12 13 9 6 40
Partially Met 1 7 4 2 14
Not Met 2 2 0 1 5

Source: GAO analysis of information from FEMA compared with EEOC’s Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment. | GAO-23-105243

  • DHS established the anti-harassment policy and training that apply to FEMA, but these do not fully meet recommended practices. For example, DHS’s policy does not include a statement that DHS (or the relevant component agency, such as FEMA) will provide a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation. Policy and training that is more consistent with EEOC recommended practices could more effectively communicate key information to employees.
  • FEMA’s harassment complaint system generally met recommended practices, but FEMA does not consistently notify employees who allege harassment whether the agency took or will take corrective action. FEMA policy requires managers to provide such notification, but GAO found that managers have not consistently done so. By implementing a control to ensure consistent notification from management, FEMA could better adhere to its policy and promote trust in its complaint processes.

Although FEMA has taken actions to address workplace discrimination and harassment, it has not taken steps that would enable it to determine the effectiveness of its efforts. Specifically, FEMA has not designated an individual or entity responsible for oversight nor has it established goals and measures for its cultural improvement efforts. Taking these steps could help FEMA better monitor its efforts, demonstrate results to its employees, and make any needed adjustments for improvement.

Why GAO Did This Study

Incidents of employee discrimination and harassment can detract from an agency’s mission and hamper its ability to maintain public trust if not effectively addressed. In 2020, the RAND Corporation—under a FEMA contract—estimated that 29 percent of FEMA employees experienced discrimination or harassment related to sex, or race/ethnicity, based on selfreported responses to a 2019 survey.

GAO was asked to review FEMA’s efforts to improve workplace culture. This report examines (1) actions FEMA took since fiscal year 2019 to prevent and respond to discrimination and harassment; (2) the extent to which EEOC has found that FEMA has complied with requirements; (3) the extent to which FEMA's actions have met EEOC recommended practices for preventing harassment; and (4) the extent to which FEMA is overseeing and evaluating its efforts. GAO analyzed FEMA and DHS policies and documentation, compared them with EEOC recommendations, and interviewed FEMA and EEOC officials.





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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations to DHS and nine to FEMA. Among them, DHS should update its antiharassment policy and training. FEMA should implement a control to ensure— consistent with agency policy—those who allege harassment are notified of whether corrective action has been or will be taken, designate an entity responsible for overseeing cultural improvement efforts, and establish associated goals and measures for its efforts. DHS concurred with these recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should update DHS's Anti- Harassment Policy Statement, consistent with EEOC's Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment, to ensure it includes:

  1. A statement that DHS will provide a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation;
  2. A description of any processes for employees to informally share or obtain information about harassment without filing a complaint; and
  3. A statement that employees are encouraged to respond to questions or to otherwise participate in investigations regarding alleged harassment. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should update mandatory antiharassment training consistent with EEOC's Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment, to ensure it includes:

  1. Examples that are tailored to the DHS-specific workplace and workforce;
  2. Explanations of the information that may be requested during an investigation, including: the name or a description of the alleged harasser(s), alleged victim(s), and any witnesses; the date(s) of the alleged harassment; the location(s) of the alleged harassment; and a description of the alleged harassment; and
  3. An opportunity for employees to ask questions about the training, harassment policy, complaint system, and related rules and expectations, either during the training or by providing component-specific points of contact. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should provide an opportunity for employees to evaluate its anti-harassment training on a reoccurring basis. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should ensure employee evaluations of anti-harassment trainings are regularly considered for future updates to its training. (Recommendation 4)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should update the agency's anti-harassment training for supervisors to include information on (1) how to identify and mitigate risk factors specific to FEMA's workplace, (2) easy-to-understand and realistic methods for addressing harassment, (3) how to report harassment allegations up the chain of command, and (4) FEMA's confidentiality rules associated with harassment complaints. (Recommendation 5)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation. In response to our report, DHS noted that FEMA updated its Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) training courses for employees and supervisors in October 2021 and January 2022, respectively. We reviewed the training materials and determined that these courses do not address our recommendation. For example, the EEO course for supervisors mentions some risk factors that could assist supervisors in identifying harassment risks, however these factors are general rather than specific to FEMA's workplace. Further, the training explains the EEO discrimination complaint process, but does not provide information on how to report harassment allegations up the chain of command through FEMA's anti-harassment complaint processes. We will continue monitoring FEMA's efforts to address this recommendation.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should collect data on time frames for key steps in the adjudication process. (Recommendation 6)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should implement a process, using the data on time frames for key steps, to regularly assess and take action to improve the timeliness of key steps in the harassment complaint adjudication process. (Recommendation 7)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should implement a control to ensure that, consistent with agency policy, when a manager or supervisor has made a determination on whether harassment has occurred, the individual who made the allegation of harassment is notified whether corrective action has been or will be taken. (Recommendation 8)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said FEMA issued a standard operating procedure to ensure decision makers notify individuals who make allegations of harassment whether corrective action has been or will be taken. While FEMA's standard operating procedure outlines the decision maker's responsibility, it does not serve as a control to ensure that these officials consistently take action as expected. Accordingly, we continue to believe that our recommendation is warranted. We will continue to monitor actions FEMA may take in response to this recommendation.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should assess harassment risk factors in FEMA's workplace. (Recommendation 9)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should take steps to mitigate the harassment risk factors in FEMA's workplace. (Recommendation 10)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should designate an individual or entity to oversee FEMA's culture improvement efforts. (Recommendation 11)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should establish program goals and outcomebased performance measures for FEMA's culture improvement efforts. (Recommendation 12)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Emergency Management Agency The FEMA Administrator should establish a plan for evaluating FEMA's culture improvement efforts using established program goals and outcome-based performance measures, and take steps to do so. (Recommendation 13)
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation and said it would take steps to implement it. When we confirm what actions DHS has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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