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Sexual harassment of federal employees still a persistent problem

Today we describe a recent example of an agency director sexually harassing a subordinate.

After an extensive investigation, the Inspector General (IG) of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in Dec. 2023 issued a report concluding that a now-retired agency director had sexually harassed an employee for 19 months and created a toxic, hostile work environment. The investigation began with an anonymous tip in 2021 that alleged sexual harassment and creation of a hostile work environment, among other violations of federal law and regulations, and of agency policy.

The targeted employee told investigators that the director’s behavior towards her influenced her to withdraw applications for senior positions and to move to a different office to avoid him. She said she experienced trauma, embarrassment and distress, and cried “all the time.”

The complaint pointed to the former director of the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (DCSA), previously also the director of the Personnel Vetting Transformation Office (PTVO). The investigation based its conclusions on behavior that included:

  • Uninvited and unwelcome touching and advances, including during work travel
  • Inappropriate remarks such as “discriminatory gender-based comments that disparaged women”
  • Disrespectful, undignified treatment
  • Creation of the false impression at work that he gave the subordinate “preferential treatment’ and that they were having an affair

Federal workplace sexual harassment defined

Sexual harassment is a type of sex discrimination. It occurs when sexual favors are conditions for hiring, job retention or advancement, or if such requests negatively impact job performance. It also exists when the workplace becomes a hostile work environment because supervisors, colleagues or others in the workplace engage in unwelcome sexually offensive or aggressive remarks or behavior frequently or of a severe nature. This may include verbal, pictorial, written or electronic communications; gestures; or unwanted suggestive or sexual contact.

Sexual harassment can occur whether the harasser targets someone of any sex or gender, or a colleague in the LGBTQ+ community.

It is also illegal for the federal agency or supervisory personnel to retaliate in any way against a worker who reports sexual harassment or who pursues legal remedies for it.

Remedies and legal representation

Seeking advice and representation of an attorney as early as possible is smart, but even later, a lawyer can usually still provide assistance that can make a difference. Legal counsel can guide a federal employee in this situation with advice about preserving evidence and deciding how and to whom to report harassment.

Every situation is unique and targeted federal workers have the right to pursue compensation and legal remedies. Counsel may be particularly helpful in a situation like the one we describe above where the harassment is coming from the director of the employing agency. But every circumstance involving discrimination or harassment of a federal worker deserves professional advocacy.

Legal remedies may be available through the agency in question, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB), a lawsuit or other option.