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The Federal Coach

Sexual harassment and the federal workplace

Sexual harassment has been back in the news with allegations of inappropriate advances by quarterback Brett Favre toward a female New York Jets employee, and with the reprise of accusations made long ago against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

While these cases have made headlines, sexual harassment remains a fact of everyday life and a problem in the government workplace. According to a recently retired federal government executive, sexual harassment cases are significantly under reported.

A young federal employee recently shared an uncomfortable, but all too real story about her own sexual harassment experience.

On her first day at work, the young fed's supervisor closed the door and said, "I didn't really hire you for this job," and then proceeded to kiss her. The woman complained to her supervisor's boss, who reprimanded the employee. In response, the supervisor told the woman that he wanted to make up for his actions by taking her away for the weekend. Thankfully, this supervisor is no longer working for the federal government.

Sexual harassment is a difficult management topic; but as a federal manager, you must be prepared to take action if you hope to build and maintain a high-performing environment.

As a starting point, let's examine how the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment:

"Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

The key takeaway for a manager is that any conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment can be considered harassment.

So, what do you do to prevent sexual harassment from occurring? How do you handle a situation when one of your employees--a woman or a man--approaches you about an incident and asks for help? Here are some ideas.

Make it clear. Employees must understand what constitutes harassment and a "hostile work environment." No one should be able to claim, "I didn't know my actions were offensive." Bring someone from outside your office to lead a discussion if necessary.

Establish an open-door policy. There is no substitute for direct and regular communication with your team about sexual discrimination. As a leader, members of your staff should feel comfortable approaching you about anything affecting their performance, regardless of how difficult the conversation. Every interaction sends a message about your ability to listen and solve problems.

Focus on the person as much as the problem. As tempting as it may be to simply solve the problem, remember that anyone approaching you about sexual harassment may have experienced a traumatic event. Pay particular attention to their feelings and perceptions at the moment, but also gather the facts.

Ask for expert help if you need to take action. Depending on the circumstances, including the victim's preferences, you may be the one who needs to take action. Talk with the appropriate human resources and equal employment opportunity staff to make certain that you're doing everything appropriately-whether you're talking with the offender or the victim. If the facts warrant action, make the sanctions strong and immediate, or take it to the next level.

Whether you're a leader who's had to deal with sexual harassment, or you're an employee who resolved the issue on your own, please send me your thoughts by posting your comments online or sending an email to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

And please check back on Wednesday, when I speak with U.S. Small Business Administration Administrator Karen G. Mills.

By Tom Fox

 |  November 1, 2010; 10:21 AM ET |  Category:  Ask the Federal Coach Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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It must suck to be a conservative and have Clinton forever on your mind. How about staying on topic and talking about this issue here and now instead of living 15 years in the past.

Posted by: arancia12 | November 5, 2010 11:16 PM

The White House during the Clinton years met the definition of a hostile workplace. It was common knowledge that Monica was trading sexual favors for access and job advancement. How did that make the other female interns feel?? Where was the lawsuit??

Posted by: sunnyroberto | November 5, 2010 9:13 AM

ChesDead, I note, is the only commenter who mentions Bill Clinton. I remember Patricia Ireland (then president of NOW) saying, during the Lewinsky controversy, that women should continue to support Clinton because of his support of "women's issues." Why oh why???

Posted by: qoph | November 5, 2010 8:00 AM

The way to handle sexual harassment is simple: institute a zero tolerance policy along with a rigorous training program that makes it absolutely clear what harassment is, what it isn't and what the consequences are if you decide to harass a coworker.

I recently held a management position in a casino where 98% of my direct reports were women. I never allowed anyone to harass my team, and I took immediate remedial action when harassment was reported to me.

As a manager, I also never met with any of my team to discuss anything without another female manager present. This made the situation always professional and above reproach, especially in situations where the team member was being disciplined or coached on their performance.

There was one situation where two male managers didn't follow that advice and they found themselves in trouble for inappropriately touching, then threatening a direct report. To make matters worse, their managers decided to try to cover the situation up. When the top manager heard what had transpired, three of the four got fired, which was the right way to handle the situation.

One of the aspects that I didn't see mentioned here is the fact that any time an employer touches an employee, that could also be considered battery, and the fines for this action are doubled (in CA anyway). It also makes it possible for jail time.

It should never be considered okay to harass anyone at work. There may be moments that some verbiage is misinterpreted, but physical contact is a whole different animal.

In situations where team members are friends outside of work, the managers should never get involved or fraternize to avoid being drawn into a no-win situation.

And, I would like to add: Watch just about any workplace related show on TV and you'll see harassment being portrayed as a joke. It's incredible what they show as passable behavior. Of course, I'm in no way in favor of any censorship, but, this does make for a bad example that idiots will follow!

Posted by: bryangalt1 | November 5, 2010 6:43 AM

The way to handle sexual harassment is simple: institute a zero tolerance policy along with a rigorous training program that makes it absolutely clear what harassment is, what it isn't and what the consequences are if you decide to harass a coworker.

I recently held a management position in a casino where 98% of my direct reports were women. I never allowed anyone to harass my team, and I took immediate remedial action when harassment was reported to me.

As a manager, I also never met with any of my team to discuss anything without another female manager present. This made the situation always professional and above reproach, especially in situations where the team member was being disciplined or coached on their performance.

There was one situation where two male managers didn't follow that advice and they found themselves in trouble for inappropriately touching, then threatening a direct report. To make matters worse, their managers decided to try to cover the situation up. When the top manager heard what had transpired, three of the four got fired, which was the right way to handle the situation.

One of the aspects that I didn't see mentioned here is the fact that any time an employer touches an employee, that could also be considered battery, and the fines for this action are doubled (in CA anyway). It also makes it possible for jail time.

It should never be considered okay to harass anyone at work. There may be moments that some verbiage is misinterpreted, but physical contact is a whole different animal.

In situations where team members are friends outside of work, the managers should never get involved or fraternize to avoid being drawn into a no-win situation.

That's the way I see it!

Posted by: bryangalt1 | November 5, 2010 6:34 AM

Throughout 1998, there was a controversy over Clinton's relationship with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton initially denied the affair while testifying in the Paula Jones SEXUAL HARASSMENT lawsuit. Opposing lawyers asked the president about it during his deposition. He stated "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky…"
Clinton then appeared on national television on January 26 and asserted: "Listen to me, I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." However, after it was revealed that investigators had obtained evidence as well as testimony from Lewinsky, Clinton changed tactics and admitted that an improper relationship with Lewinsky had taken place: "Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible."

Faced with overwhelming evidence, he apologized to the nation, agreed to pay a $25,000 fine, settled his SEXUAL HARASSMENT lawsuit with Paula Jones for $850,000 and was disbarred for five years from practicing law in Arkansas and before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was not tried for perjury in a court. However, Clinton did admit to "testifying falsely" in a carefully worded statement as part of a deal to avoid indictment for perjury.
Two claims of SEXUAL MISCONDUCT on the part of Bill Clinton were alleged by former White House volunteer Kathleen Willey and Arkansas nursing home administrator Juanita Broaddrick during his Administration. Neither claim resulted in charges against Clinton. --http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Bill_Clinton

The National Organization of Women decided, in the case of Bill Clinton, that sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape were pardonable given that there was no NOW-based feminist policy he wouldn’t support politically. None of his cabinet members resigned on discovering that he lied to them, Congress decided this serial behavior and the perjury to cover it up wasn’t grounds for removal. Corporations pay him big money for speaker fees, his books pull in $millions, he campaigns for fellow politicians, and he’s beloved by Oprah nation and The View. And, a majority of women would probably vote for him again.

Until most women can “feel the pain” of Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broderick’s contact with a sexual predator rather than excuse the assault because the perpetrator has some emotionally-appealing attributes that somehow nullify this behavior, countering real sexual harassment will be subjected to under-enforcement.

The policy should be “no-tolerance” whether the perpetrator is a first-line manager or President of the United States. When the sexual harassment is clear, documented and undeniable, there should be no exceptions based on the perpetrator’s looks, personality, charm, appearance, connections, or status.

Posted by: ChesDead | November 4, 2010 11:31 AM

With all the "laws" we have regarding sexual harassment, workplace atmosphere is still rampant with disregard for women. It doesn't matter that I have a PhD. A male coworker MASTURBATED in front of me, but I was the one who was fired the next day (I was a contractor).

One of the problems with working in federal government offices is that employees are rewarded not for their work, but for justifying the existence of their (many) supervisors.

If you want to know what my engineering career was like, watch the movie about it at http://BudgetJustified.com

Posted by: LisaSchaefer | November 4, 2010 8:53 AM

Don't think these sort of experiences are limited to the federal government; working for our local state governments are equal to any experience that a federal employee may have.

I was harassed, threatened and demeaned: When I complained, by filing four grievances in one day, I was banished to a miserable assignment and threatened. I was told to donate to the gubernatorial election and my situation would improve. I watched while totally incompetent people were promoted and amazingly competent people fired.

Finally, the executive director of our department was accused of sexual harassment and forced to quit. And where did his accusers go? One is a high level political federal employee and the other a high level lobbyist. And the person forced to make the untrue accusation? Immediately quit, had a nervous breakdown and left the area.

So, no good deed ever goes unpunished.

Posted by: carolineC1 | November 3, 2010 7:06 PM

PresidentDon, you are probably right. As a male, be very careful when dealing with women, and make sure other males are around when you have to interact with them, especially secretaries. But also be careful when in a men's room with another man, because guys can make up stories of harassment as well.

Posted by: mxk1 | November 3, 2010 11:44 AM

Increasingly,many women - and some men - encourage sexual advances by their inappropriate, sexy attire and demeanor in the workplace. They know most men are idiots and the women can "get them" in claims of unwelcome sexual advances - or they can follow through and advance their careers (usually for a brief time period). When more professional women earn leadership positions, sexual office politics will improve.

Posted by: mirrorgazer | November 3, 2010 9:42 AM

I am a woman and have been a federal employee for 15 years. I have witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace and been harassed myself (not in the same organization). In both cases, women managers were first line supervisors who refused to believe that the man accused "would do something like that", perhaps because he had never harassed them or behaved inappropriately around them. Please, if you are a manager be aware that employees are much more likely to behave appropriately when you are there and do not allow trust based on your experiences to blind you to multiple complaints from others.

Posted by: chica1 | November 3, 2010 9:00 AM

Our Navy got it right years back. While it's still referred to as Diversity and Sexual Harassment, this issue is about "Rights and Responsibilities." Employees/employers MUST know and acknowledge the consequences of their actions to the point of legal actions.

We cannot stop the attraction among people, we cannot make people like one another. We can however prescribe how they conduct themselves on the job and in relation to their employment. This is a must to get past the point of "awareness" and "relationships." This becomes the behavior of the organization and the "How we conduct business in our business" law.

Since the days of race relationships, and before with the treatment of women, we have yet to improve much even after the movements in the 60s and 70s. It is time we get past that issue of "peace and love" and get on with mandating the security and trust of employees and employers.

Posted by: jbeeler | November 3, 2010 8:16 AM

Oh does this bring back memories! I spent many years as a Trauma Nurse Specialist in a large hospital in Arizona! My interactions were with a mostly male and highly testosterone driven group of surgeons. I had to fight tooth and nail to gain their respect. This had nothing whatsoever to do with my professional ability! Here is one of many examples. A surgeon know for sexual overtures with many nurses made me a target. He would put his hands on me and make provactive comments. I told him clearly and unequivocavly NO! I even told him so in front the the charge nurse on the dayshift to no avail. Let me digress to say that there were many nurses, particularly on the dayshift that welcomed and even encouraged their advances (pardon me while I gag!) which made matters worse for those of us who did not. Back to my Medical Stalker. On one particular moning at the end of night shift(mine) and beginning of the day, all of the nurses and several of the surgeons where gathered in a common area at the center of the intensive care unit talking about the night's events. The smarmy Surgeon in question had literally chased me through the unit and the adjoining Kitchen trying to put his arms around me. I finally stood next to the dayshift nurse giving her my report when the Doctor approached us both saying "Jane"(not my real name) does not like me!" Well that was enough for me. I said in a strong, clear, voice "It is not that I do not like you Dr D., it is just that I do not want to be fondled by you! The entire unit became dead silent. Everyone knew of Dr D.'s proclivity for lewd behavior. I then simply walked calmly to the conference room and sipped a hot cup of Coffee, grinning! Dr. D appologized to me publically and privately, over and over again for months to come. The obnoxious behavior ceased.

Posted by: anonpost1 | November 2, 2010 11:04 PM

I concur with an earlier post. During my 35 yrs in the government, sexual favoritism was common. Almost always it was unmarried lower rank women with married higher rank males, sometimes but not always in the same chain of command.

Some particularly brazen high ranking men utilized their offices for the relationships. Little effort was made to mask the activities taking place therein. Because of the disparities in rank, staff felt it necessary to know who was involved with who. Remarks made to the lower ranking participant in an affair were almost always relayed to the higher ranking manager.

In a somewhat more positive vein, this form of favoritism seemed to be in significant decline during my last years of employment.

While this isn't sexual harassment in the conventional sense, the negative impact of this behavior on the organization was immense.

Posted by: billsecure | November 2, 2010 9:01 PM

I am so torn by the comments here. I am a female who spent 24 years in a largely male career field in the military, six years as a contractor working for the DoD, and one year as a civil servant.

I was never overtly sexually harassed. No one ever grabbed me, kissed me, or offered higher ratings for sex. Then again, I'm not exactly gorgeous. I just knew what I was there to do and I think my actions made it clear that I expected not to be touched, ever.

On the other hand, I certainly experienced plenty of sexual harassment through comments about how I was jealous of better looking women, how homely I was, how my butt was too big and my b00bs too small. I was routinely ignored, "forgotten", passed over, discounted, and dismissed.

It's a 50/50 proposition. Women need to learn how to project that they will not be violated and men need to keep their minds on their work.

True story, walking from my shop on snowy, sub-zero evening, parka hood up, trying to keep from freezing to death when I noticed a bunch of my male coworkers waiting in a group by a ditch. It was their habit to grab unsuspecting passersby and toss them in the ditch, male or female, didn't matter.

I almost turned back to my shop but at the last minute I decided I was not going to be put out of my way by a bunch of juvenile delinquents. So I squared up and walked on.

No one laid a hand on me. Much later, asked them why, they said they could see in my body language that I was not amused and not to be screwed with.

Say what you mean and mean what you say.

Posted by: arancia12 | November 2, 2010 6:02 PM

I'd add in don't seek help from the EEOC. They're quite the `friend to business' and are not at all likely to help no matter how good your proof of lawbreaking is.

Posted by: Nymous | November 2, 2010 4:24 PM

I don't have to agree with another person's lifestyle to defend their rights as a member of society. A lot of debate is 'raging' over the military policy of 'don't ask, don't tell. Back in '93, i understood that the policy was an 'extension of sexual harassment laws in that a soldier was to keep their private life 'off the base or field' while on duty. If sexual harassment laws were stringently enforced in the military ( reports have surfaced that they aren't always) then why is it an issue? On duty, do your duty. What one does off duty is no ones business. Mix the two, others don't want to be 'distracted' while on duty. Its the USA, and one can legally do just about anything; except while at work or on duty. Some have a personal belief that a 'life style may leading them 'straight to Hell' and they have the right to believe that but not share it on the job or while on duty, either. That's called religious discrimination. Many have probably worked alongside those of various personal lifestyle persuasions and never known it because its not part of ones duty assignment to discuss personal business. But, if one learns about a lifestyle that isn't shared by the majority our laws shouldn't 'punish' one who is doing nothing illegal. Linda Joy Adams

Posted by: LindaJoyAdams | November 2, 2010 3:39 PM

Bluntly, you are inexperienced and /or fools to write "Employees must understand what constitutes harassment and a "hostile work environment." No one should be able to claim, "I didn't know my actions were offensive." ". Only those without significant real world experience could believe there is a clear, always unambiguous distinction between harassing and non-harassing behavior. In the real world what makes one person uncomfortable is fine for others, and you cannot set a standard of making everyone comfortable all the time.

I have seen a person claim harassment because they frequently were invited to join a group for a coffee break and in an almost identical dynamic a different person claimed exclusion (and a hostile environment) because they were not invited to join a different group for lunch. In both cases the aggrieved person was convinced their opinion was correct without any possibility of less sinister explanations.

The only advice I have is to encourage people to state when they are uncomfortable in a situation, and to encourage people to respect those statements even if they don't understand or agree with them.

Posted by: jfx1 | November 2, 2010 3:08 PM

Try academia, which is heavily subsidized by federal grants and aid. Congress omitted academia from the purview of the EEOC (and Title VII) when it enacted that equal rights office, and academia has remained a sexually abusive, sexually opportunistic snake pit for attractive young female scholars. Supposedly, the Education Department Office for Civil Rights is supposed to investigate and enforce equal rights under Title IX, but in reality it investigates very little, rubber stamps whatever the schools do and mainly act only to make sure published policies of a school are consistent with public law, regardless of whether the school ever actual follows those policies or not.

Academia is the most sexually abusive environment I've ever encountered, and I served in the military on Navy bases. It's quite Gothic.

Discriminatory abuses in the private and public sector come nowhere close to what exists in professional education and research.

Posted by: AsperGirl | November 2, 2010 2:52 PM

Why would a supervisor consider "the victim's preferences" when determining a course of action? Violation of workplace sexual harassment policies is an infraction against the organization's code of conduct. Although some would disagree, misconduct by a male does not make the man any type of slave to the complaintant.

"If the facts warrant action, make the sanctions strong..." Why would a supervisor make an action strong as opposed to just? Is there a bias against men such that it is popular to be especially harsh as opposed to fair to all?

In the opening description, I'm surprised that the definition is "unwanted" sexual advances as opposed to "repeated unwanted" sexual advances. It's like saying that if you ask a woman out on a date and she wants to go, then it's not harassment. But if she's not interested, then you've committed sexual harassment.

Posted by: blasmaic | November 2, 2010 2:22 PM

To jfv123: (E) Government supervisors KNOW they can get away with just about anything! It's a good old boys club. Oh the stories I could tell.........!

Posted by: fedup100 | November 2, 2010 1:33 PM

I worked at a Federal agency for 7 years and found it a very hostile work environment. I was literally chased around a conference table and pinned in a corner by my supervisor, I had to knee him to get away. I was later passed over for promotion to a GS 13 position for which, at the 12 level, I more than successfully replaced the two men who had simultaneously held the job, both at the higher rank. WORK AGAIN for the FEDS - I don't think so!!!

Posted by: margaret22 | November 2, 2010 1:18 PM

Ah, sexual harrassment in the federal government. Happens all the time, but with the "good old boys" network firmly in place, you can bet they don't do anything about it. They all feel like Presidentdon up above--angry and misunderstood. They laugh and snicker at their inappropriate comments and actions, and cover for each other as they stay firmly ensconced in the power positions. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Posted by: hcpf | November 2, 2010 1:11 PM

Let's remember that sexual harrassment and sex discrimination are two different things. One can never utter a "bad" word toward a woman and still deliberately keep her out of the loop: "forget" to invite her to meetings, always be sure to have a "good" reason not to give her projects or a broom closet - forget the corner office, that's for Men, not "girls". And if she objects, "There are plenty of people out there who would love to have your job!"

Posted by: washerwoman | November 2, 2010 1:01 PM

Let me get this straight. Day 1 of employment, the supoervisor tells the woman I didn't hire you and then kisses her?
Then after management reprimand, spervisor asks the woman to go away with him for the weekend?

Choose one or more of the following:

(A) Supervisor was deranged
(B) Supervisor hated his job and wanted to be fired
(C) Government hires crazy people
(D) Story was made up by media
(E) All the above
(F) None of the above

Posted by: jfv123 | November 2, 2010 10:26 AM

Wow. Nice comments.

Sexual harassment is never okay. Women do sexually harass men too and that is not okay either.

I realize some women may be hyper sensitive and some may seek sexual attention, but that's not what the article is talking about.

If you cannot interact with a co-worker in a non-sexual manner, then you really need to re-evaluate yourself and your morals.

Posted by: hebe1 | November 2, 2010 9:46 AM

What I've seen in the Federal Government - rather than sexual harrassment per se - is rampant sexual favoritism. Women routinely engage in consensual sexual relationships with superiors in exchange for career promotions and other perks. This is far more insidious than overt sexual harrassment, but just as unfair to Federal employees who are shut out of promotions because they are not the "favored one" of a particular supervisor.

Posted by: SubRosa2 | November 2, 2010 8:58 AM

It has become impossible in some cases to work with women who consider any eye to eye contact an agression. Any close working relationship alone in an office, as an offense. I had a simular situation where I was finally thought to be gay, because I never ever made any sexual jokes, I avoided any discussion of anything other that exactly the work we were doing for Video Production of teaching material. The other person was confronted with other trades workers that always were making sly but joking remarks that other women would have registered complaints about. I worked with many women in a hospital situation where patient sexual actions were part of the training discussions, but was so aware that any look, face to face with any of the women would have been considered a threat. It has become so threatening, since men do not understand how negative women see us, that it's best not to hire a woman if you are working on a one to one basis in any private location with out other workers present at "all" times.
In the case I describe that person was actually trying to get me interested and I gave absolutely no attention to that at all. So do we stop trying to attract the opposite sex, for a possible real relationship that might lead to a real romance and long term, even marriage relationship, or just ignore women completely?
Heaven forbid we look at any child anymore in any out of the home situation, such as in a shopping location? I don't care if a child is about to be injured, I look the other way, I will not attempt to protect, or touch any child of any sex of any age, as I might be considered a molester. It's tough, but men must not touch, look, care, at all and look the other way.
I know some people of both sexes sometimes overstep boundries, so it's best to completely ignore any contact with women on the jobs, just in case any word, comment on looking nice or anything is considered Sexual Harrassment.

Posted by: PresidentDon | November 2, 2010 7:11 AM

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