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Forest Service Attempts to Tackle Workplace Harassment and Sexual Misconduct

— November 16, 2018

The U.S. Forest Service has promised to clamp down on sexual harassment and other workplace issues.

The Associated Press reports that newly-appointed Forest Service director Vicki Christiansen told a congressional panel that the agency’s in need of cultural change. She promised to put new systems in place and rework existing processes to ensure workplace safety and comfort.

“I know our actions past and present are not enough, we must do more,” Christiansen said on Thursday.

According to the Associated Press, the Forest Service has a long, troubled history with workplace discrimination and sexual misconduct. The agency suffered a class-action suit in the 70s, brought by women who claimed to have been passed over for employment and promotions. And in December 2016, an oversight panel held a hearing to address complaints of rampant, ‘systematic discrimination, bullying and harassment.’

U.S. Forest Service director Vicki Christiansen. Image via Flickr/user:U.S. Forest Service, USDA. Public domain.

Forest Service employees purportedly have low confidence in the agency’s ability to address and rectify complaints that range from harassment to rape. The agency pledged to make amends in March, after the USDA Office of Inspector General released a report showing widespread distrust in the complaint reporting process.

Earlier in November, Oversight Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) sent a letter to Christiansen and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue requesting more information.

Though Gowdy acknowledged the Forest Service’s efforts to change, he said that “alarming reports of misconduct and retaliation at the USFS persist.”

Christiansen, says the Associated Press, spent decades as a forester and wildfire-fighter before becoming the Forest Service’s chief.

“I know what it means to encounter harassment and discrimination in my workplace,” she said. “I know the deep anguish it causes. I know how it feels to fear retaliation.”

Christiansen said her background fuels her “commitment to the Forest Service.”

Parts of the Forest Service’s new plan were released Thursday. Christiansen discussed progressed and told Congress that the agency’s anti-harassment policy has been updated. In an attempt to stymie internal bias and favoritism, outside contractors have been hired to investigate sexual misconduct complaints.

Christiansen’s Forest Service also created a Work Environment and Performance Office, which she says will establish a more efficient victim advocacy network and support structure.

Shannon Reed, a former Forest Service employee who claims she was harassed and assaulted, told Congress that Christiansen’s plan doesn’t go far enough.

“Chief Christiansen’s action plan is merely a check-the-box process to make the agency appear as if it is addressing sexual harassment, gender harassment, bullying and retaliation,” Reed said. “The agency is telling us to stand up and report harassment, but when we do, we are retaliated against. Chief Christiansen has not made it a safe environment for us to report harassment.”

Partway through the hearing, Christiansen admitted there’s “big work to do.”

“I’d like to say I could change it in six months,” she said. “But to be absolutely honest, I don’t think you can change the culture of an organization that’s existed for 113 years and has 40,000 people overnight.”


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