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When a harassment complaint leads to retaliation

The law says that businesses and agencies are supposed to provide safe workplaces. They are supposed to shield you from harassment and discrimination. If you file a complaint about such behavior, an agency is supposed to investigate that complaint in good faith. But things don’t always go the way they should.

One Navy veteran found this out the hard way after her complaint of sexual harassment allegedly prompted a top-level Veteran Affairs official to smear her name.

A portrait of retaliation

The story, as written by the staff at ProPublica, offers a cold reminder that there’s vast gulf between what the law says should happen and what sometimes does happen. And that gulf can start or stop at any level, including the top.

As ProPublica reported:

  • A congressional aide and Navy veteran reported that she had been sexually harassed at a VA hospital
  • After she reported her harassment, a ranking VA official allegedly sought dirt to make her look bad
  • The woman’s complaint also triggered an investigation from the inspector general’s office, which did not lead to criminal charges
  • The VA official appeared to use the lack of criminal charges as cause to dismiss the harassment claims altogether, calling them “unsubstantiated”
  • The inspector general sent a letter pointing out that the decision not to file criminal charges did not mean the harassment claims were unsubstantiated

Pause here for a moment. These last points are notable. Instead of seriously investigating the woman’s claims, the VA official appears to have looked for ways to dismiss it. Even in the face of reproof from the inspector general. Even when the harassment claims came from a federal employee who had served her country in the military.

Prepare yourself for battle

The ProPublica report relies upon anonymous sources, and the VA official’s statements suggest a very different picture of events. Regardless, it offers a stark reminder that harassment victims can’t always count on agency support.

The law favors the victims, but their fights may be tougher than they first suspect. They may even lead from fights over harassment to fights over harassment and retaliation. As a result, victims may want to arm themselves with strong counsel and prepare for the long battle.

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