Attempts to quash sexual harassment at US forest service questioned

By on 25/11/2018
Vicki Christiansen has outlined several measures to end a culture of harassment at the agency.

Measures to curb a longstanding culture of sexual harassment at the US Forest Service are just a “check-the-box” process which will not eliminate the problem, according to evidence presented to a House Oversight Committee inquiry.

The committee is investigating whether progress has been made at the service to deal with reports of misconduct, sexual harassment and retaliation against those who spoke out. It previously scrutinised similar allegations of the agency in 2016, but said that reports of such behaviour had continued.

Earlier this year, a report by the Inspector General found that there was a culture of sexual misconduct at the service stretching back decades. In March, the head of the Forest Service, Tony Tooke, resigned amid reports that the agency was investigating complaints made against him, according to news site CNN.com.

Tooke was replaced in an interim capacity by Vicki Christiansen, who then took on the role permanently in October. Herself a victim of sexual harassment at the service, Christiansen has created a complaint hotline; directed a deputy to improve the workplace environment; is reviewing the anti-harassment policy and has hired a third-party company to investigate claims of sexual harassment, rather than using Forest Service investigators, according to her evidence to the committee.

“I have been in public service for my entire 38-year career as a forester and a wildland firefighter. I know what it means to encounter harassment and discrimination in my workplace. I know the deep anguish it causes. I know how it feels to fear retaliation,” she told the committee.

However, Shannon Reed, a former air quality specialist at the service, gave evidence that the action plan was “merely a check-the-box process to make the agency appear as if it is addressing sexual harassment, gender harassment, bullying, and retaliation.

“It has no real application to preventing and eliminating harassment and retaliation against employees. Managers and supervisors are not being held accountable,” she wrote.

An open letter signed by Reed and 60 other women, states that the changes amount to a “band-aid” to deep-seated problems, according to pbs.org.

Max Stier of the non-profit organisation the Partnership for Public Service said the “standards ought to be higher” for government employees than for those in the private sector, according to CNN.com.

But the civil service faces trouble finding leaders who can implement changes that last, he added. “By and large, they are not well supported by their leaders or the institutions they’re working within.”

About Catherine Early

Catherine Early is a journalist and editor specialising in government policy and regulation. She writes predominantly about environmental issues and has worked for the Environmentalist, the ENDS Report, Planning magazine and Windpower Monthly, and also written for the Guardian, the Ecologist and China Dialogue.

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