Sexual Harassment Underreported at State Department, Report Says

WASHINGTON — Sexual harassment at the State Department most likely goes underreported because employees lack confidence in the agency’s responsiveness to the issue and because the department has failed to handle complaints properly, an internal review concluded Friday.

The report by the department’s inspector general found that even though accounts of harassment at the agency increased by 63 percent from 2014 to 2017, some employees said such episodes were still “significantly underreported.”

Interviews and documents reviewed by investigators revealed 47 percent of department employees surveyed who experienced or observed harassment failed to tell the State Department’s internal bureaus that handle misconduct complaints.

Employees cited numerous factors for not doing so, including a “lack of confidence in the department’s ability to resolve complaints, fear of retaliation and reluctance to discuss the harassment with others,” the report said.

Investigators also found that the department had taken steps to increase awareness about sexual harassment issues, but supervisors had not received updated guidance on the reporting process, which contributes to confusion and lack of coordination among internal departments on how to address misconduct claims.

A State Department spokeswoman said that the agency takes extremely seriously all allegations of harassment and discrimination and added that the department had policies prohibiting sexual or gender-based harassment.

The findings are not surprising and confirm years of complaints women have leveled against the State Department and other government agencies for perpetuating a culture of harassment and mishandling claims of misconduct.

Recently, the American ambassador to Britain, Robert Wood Johnson IV, has come under fire for allegations that he has made sexually or racially inappropriate comments to his embassy employees, a State Department report said. In August, a report showed that he had urged State Department investigators to not publicly report allegations his staff had raised.

This spring, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a report criticizing the State Department for poor sexual harassment reporting procedures, a lack of accountability from senior leaders and insufficient training that allowed “repeat offenders to continue to abuse.”

“Many women at the State Department fear that they will suffer retaliation if they come forward to report harassment,” the report said.

In 2017, more than 200 women in national security roles — including at the State Department — wrote an open letter revealing they had been sexually harassed or knew someone in government who had been. They suggested that the toxic culture at various federal security agencies, particularly “men who use their power to assault at one end of the spectrum and perpetuate — sometimes unconsciously — environments that silence, demean, belittle or neglect women at the other,” kept them from advancing in their careers.

“Assault is the progression of the same behaviors that permit us to be denigrated, interrupted, shut out and shut up,” the letter read.

House Democrats have raised concern about this issue.

On Wednesday, three Democratic lawmakers introduced the State Harassment and Assault Prevention and Eradication Act of 2020 to strengthen policies to prevent harassment, assault and retaliation at the State Department in support of the “brave employees who spoke up about the toxic climate” they had endured as government employees.

The legislation — sponsored by Representatives Eliot L. Engel of New York, Jackie Speier of California and Joaquin Castro of Texas — would establish an Office of Employee Advocacy at the department that provides victims the option to receive legal counsel and an international 24/7 hotline to seek advice.

It also calls for the State Department to submit annual reports to Congress on harassment claims and disciplinary action taken against perpetrators of misconduct. The act would provide alternative work assignments or paid leaves of absence to employees who file complaints of abuse and eliminate forced nondisclosure and nondisparagement agreements.

“Three years ago, our country was put on notice by the #MeToo movement,” Ms. Speier, a chairwoman of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, said in a statement announcing the legislation. “Many of these women and men are serving in war zones or equally dangerous territories. They do so for long stretches of time without access to their loved ones. It’s our duty to ensure that the only enemies they need to worry about are outside their ranks.”

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