Sex and the Seashore

Numerous examples of harassment have rocked units of the National Park Service and raised significant questions of competence of their management

Canaveral National Seashore in Florida is not one of the better-known National Park Service sites. Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are famous and all attract millions of visitors every year. This park manages about 1.5 million visitors a year, which is relatively modest given its location in one of the most populous states and its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center, Daytona Beach and the theme parks of Orlando.

Unfortunately, it has become better known for a reason far different from its white beaches and its sea turtles. For some employees, the park's motto "the way it used to be," seems to suggest less the unspoiled beaches and more a workplace with a culture akin to that of television program Mad Men.

The National Park Service explicitly forbids sexual harassment in the workplace. However, disturbing reports have come forward involving incidents at Canaveral National Seashore, Grand Canyon National Park and other locations. Female employees have reported to investigators a pattern and practice of both the existence of this conduct by supervisory personnel and other employees and a toleration of this behavior by the top management in the parks.

Problems are widespread

Recently, the superintendent of Yosemite National Park resigned after 18 employees made allegations of harassment and a toxic work environment and the Park Service investigation found "that the environment is indeed toxic, hostile, repressive and harassing."

At Canaveral, the first investigation was carried out by the Office of Inspector General for the Interior Department in 2012. Three additional investigations followed, which is a significant number for a small park with approximately 50 employees. They discovered a workplace with a toxic level of harassment, mistrust and allegations of corruption and nepotism by the park superintendent.

Fiefdoms?

The units of the National Park Service contain the conditions that are ripe for these types of problems. There are 416 units, some the size of small states, like Big Bend in Texas and others, like Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska are minuscule in size. They are often geographically isolated, and the superintendent can be seen as all-powerful.

The Park Service is also "the way it used to be" in that it is overwhelmingly male, with 63 percent of its employee's men. The law enforcement division is even more so, at 85 percent. This can combine with the isolation to create an environment that one former district manager noted was "Hey, I can do anything I want and there's nothing you can do to me."

For women employees, it can be terrifying, as they debate enduring sexual advances or risk reporting them and being subject to overt and covert retaliation. Women at the Grand Canyon were suspended for "twerking" at a dance party while men accused of "groping, propositioning or bullying their coworkers" received no punishment.

Who would know?

At Canaveral NS, a law enforcement ranger was accosted by her supervisor in a remote cabin, who suggested they have sex because "who would know?" She attempted to brush it off and left the room. Afterward, she had to continue to interact with him on a daily basis. When the supervisor was interviewed by inspectors, he first denied anything inappropriate happened, and then later claimed it was a "misunderstanding." When asked what kind of misunderstanding, "he replied he did not know."

Such conduct is not a "misunderstanding." It is harassment. There is nothing wrong with an individual noting that someone is dressed nicely. It is entirely different when a male manager notes that a woman's peach-colored dress reminded him of a Creamsicle and that he could "lick it up." The woman's discomfort was compounded by the fact she was the age of the manager's grandchildren.

Lack of sufficient funding?

The Park Service has seen these issues before and had developed a comprehensive program to address this matter, but the program was scrapped after the 9/11 and was never instituted as budget cuts and lack of adequate funding by Congress has left the agency with insufficient funds to properly maintain its physical assets.

This year the maintenance backlog rose to almost $12 billion dollars and the most recent budget proposal from the U.S. House would likely add to this, as it would likely result in further cuts.

The price of budget cuts is often "discretionary" items like anti-sexual harassment training and as important, structural changes in management that prevent "old boy" networks from protecting their own.

Retaliation

Repeatedly in the reports by the OIG, it becomes clear that women within the Park Service fear to report harassment because of anticipated retaliation and the destruction of their career.

Managers within the service must develop a reporting system that protects those who experience this type of harassment. The Park Service must effectively deal with those who engage in any form of harassment or retaliation and who foster the go-along-to-get-along atmosphere that can lead to workers simply abandoning their federal careers to get away from the conduct.

If you have been harassed, discussing your situation with an attorney can be helpful, as they can advise you during the reporting process, and can help explain the type of information gathering that can support your case and protect your career if retaliation begins.