Veterans Affairs sexual harassment policies 'inconsistent and incomplete,' report finds

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This story originally published July 15, 2020 at 1:36 p.m. EST. It was updated at 5:52 p.m.

On average, about one out of every five Department of Veterans Affairs employees experience sexual harassment at work and policies to prevent and address that harassment are "inconsistent and incomplete," an agency watchdog said in a report released Wednesday.

Those issues are hurting efforts to protect employees from harassment, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said.

At VA, a person charged with overseeing hiring, promotions and other personnel matters is the same person who oversees complaints, including for sexual harassment, creating a conflict of interest, GAO cited as one example in its report. One of those positions at VA is the Equal Employment Opportunity director. 

VA also doesn't centrally collect information on sexual harassment complaints, making it more difficult to direct resources to prevent and address the harassment where needed. Local managers are not required to report sexual harassment complaints to VA headquarters, and as a result, VA is not aware of all sexual harassment allegations across the department. 

"Without these data, VA may miss opportunities to better target its resources and prevent and address sexual harassment," GAO investigators wrote in the report.

The report echoed many concerns cited in previous reports and by lawmakers, advocates and survivors about sexual harassment and assault of patients at VA, which some have referred to as an "epidemic." 

VA has come under increasing pressure to address sexual harassment and assault of veterans and employees in recent years. In February, the VA Office of the Inspector General announced it would examine Secretary Robert Wilkie over allegations he sought damaging information about veteran and senior Congressional advisor Andrea Goldstein after she reported being sexually assaulted at a VA hospital. 

That investigation is still ongoing. The investigation into Goldstein's assault concluded earlier this year with no criminal charges filed. Multiple sources with knowledge of the case told Connecting Vets that was due, at least in part, to a lack of functioning security cameras at the hospital in the area the assault took place. Public records obtained by Connecting Vets confirmed that no viable video was recovered because the security camera was not functioning. 

On Wednesday, top Veterans Affairs lawmakers sent a letter to Wilkie urging him to expedite GAO's recommendations to address sexual harassment in the report, including House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and ranking members Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., among others. 

"The Department must make the prevention and addressing of sexual harassment a top priority. This report not only details specific shortcomings in policies and procedures hampering efforts to address and prevent harassment, but also offers seven recommendations the Department can take to address sexual harassment," lawmakers wrote. "These deficiencies are startlingly similar to many previously identified regarding patient harassment, particularly inconsistent understanding and application of policy. As an institution that is charged with providing healthcare and benefits to survivors of sexual violence, VA must lead on all fronts at the VA Central Office and in all three administrations — Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, and National Cemetery Administration — on addressing this issue.”

Lawmakers also announced a plan to hold a joint hearing on the issue, including how VA can end sexual harassment "throughout the agency." 

Four years after announcing plans for a VA Harassment Prevention Program, VA still has not formally approved the effort, intended to prevent harassment and address it "before it becomes unlawful." 

A federal survey found that about 22 percent of VA employees reported experiencing workplace sexual harassment from 2014 to 2016. VA had the highest rate of sexual harassment of the 24 federal agencies surveyed -- about 26 percent of women and 14 percent of men reported experiencing harassment over the two years. 

VA also has an "overarching" policy that outlines efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment of employees, but at agency and administration levels, policies aren't consistent, investigators found. Some were outdated or missing information, such as all the options employees have for reporting sexual harassment. 

VA requires its employees participate in sexual harassment training, but "does not have in-depth information on identifying and addressing sexual harassment," the report found. The trainings have either one or no sexual harassment example scenarios to help employees understand what behaviors are not allowed. The trainings also don't mention VA's Harassment Prevention Program. 

Sexual harassment negatively affects both employees and employers, GAO investigators wrote, and if severe or pervasive, "can constitute unlawful employment discrimination" violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. 

VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets Wednesday that GAO's data for the report is "up to six years old" and since then, the department has "championed several efforts aimed at preventing harassment in all forms." 

Those efforts helped boost VA from 17th to 6th among large federal agencies in the annual "best places to work" survey of government employees, Noel said, adding that VA is in the process of implementing GAO's recommendations from the report.

GAO's recommendations included:

  • Changes to positions to avoid conflicts of interest, ensure that VA harassment policies are consistent and updated;
  • Approve the Harassment Prevention Program;
  • Require managers to report all harassment complaints and other available data on harassment prevalence;
  • Ensure that any corrective actions that result from sexual harassment complaints are carried out and evidence they were enforced is reported;
  • Require additional training for VA employees on identifying and addressing sexual harassment, including the prevention program process. 

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Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.
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