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MSPB releases long-overdue report on sexual harassment

On Behalf of | Jan 17, 2023 | Federal Employment Law

The Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) recently released its overdue report on sexual harassment in the federal workplace. The report was underway in 2017 but was delayed when the MSPB’s board lost its quorum that January.

Based largely on the 2016 Merit Principles Survey and data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the report offers some good news. Overall, federal employees are less likely to experience sexual harassment today than twenty years ago. However, the report also points out that sexual harassment is still far too common. Agencies still have much they need to address.

Sexual harassment in the federal workplace

The report noted that the decline in sexual harassment corresponded with an increased understanding of the problem. Federal employees are getting better at correctly identifying inappropriate behaviors. Additionally, men are more likely than before to agree with women about which behaviors might constitute harassment.

Even so, sexual harassment remains widespread. Nearly one in seven federal employees claimed to have experienced sexual harassment within two years of the survey. However, these incidents did not all take the same form. The report identified the five most common ways feds experienced harassment, as well as the number of employees who experienced them:

  • Sexualized conversations (7.3%)
  • Invasion of personal boundaries (7.2%)
  • Sexualized teasing, jokes or questions (5.9%)
  • Crass terms related to sex or gender (5.0%)
  • Sexually suggestive leering or gestures (4.6%)

The report also notes that women were more than twice as likely to experience sexual harassment as men. Still, the fact is that nearly one in ten men reported experiencing harassment (9%). That number may surprise many, but simply being female means employees are far more likely to face sexual harassment. More than one in five women (21%) reported experiencing sexual harassment of one form or another.

A move to confront harassment

The report also explored the ways that victims responded to their harassment. The two most common reactions were, perhaps, unsurprising. Most victims chose either to avoid the harasser (61%) or ask the harasser to stop (59%). The report noted that employees in 2016 were more likely to pursue an active response to harassment than earlier employees. They were less likely to simply “tolerate” it.

However, the report then points out a worrisome trend. It presents two charts that identify the actions that victims perceived as being helpful and those that they believed caused further problems.

Which did they view as helpful? According to the victims, the most helpful responses were:

  • Change jobs
  • Ask the harasser to stop
  • Avoid the harasser
  • Threaten to tell others
  • Report the harasser to a supervisor

Ignoring the behavior, doing nothing and making a joke of the behavior all rated ahead of filing a formal complaint. Indeed, filing a formal complaint topped the list of actions victims believed were most likely to cause further problems:

  • File a formal complaint
  • Report the harasser to a supervisor
  • Go along with the behavior
  • Threaten to tell others
  • Ask the harasser to stop

Agencies still have a long way to go

As the MSPB notes, the system is not working when employees believe that filing a formal complaint is more likely to cause additional problems than simply going along with sexual harassment. According to MSPB Chairwoman Cathy Harris, the data show “the avenues of reporting are not resulting in effective corrective action.”

Harris believes that agencies need to take three key steps to improve the official process:

  • Set aside funds to deal with sexual harassment cases
  • Move quickly to complete thorough investigations early
  • Do the “right thing” with “prompt and corrective” actions

Can victims find justice?

It’s important to remember that the big picture is getting slightly brighter. There’s more awareness of sexual harassment now than years ago, and there’s less harassment in the federal workplace. However, the report offered one more statistic that makes one question whether victims can find justice: Victims only believed half as often (35%) as non-victims (64%) that filing sexual harassment charges would lead to justice.

The truth is that the process can work, and there are strong reasons for victims to pursue justice. But the official system is often complicated and cumbersome. It’s hard for people to navigate on their own. When simply asking the harasser to stop isn’t enough, victims deserve better. To find real justice, though, the report suggests they may need proven help.


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