Zinke Clueless on Interior’s Harassment Culture
Survey Shows Widespread Reports of Reprisal and Complaint Suppression
Washington, DC — In the stunning new survey of harassment inside the U.S. Department of Interior, key findings about management reprisal and hostility were downplayed, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Buried in those survey results is that nearly one in three employees who reported harassment were punished for doing so, with more than one in six threatened with being terminated.
Overall, the 2017 Work Environment Survey released last week showed that 35 percent of the more than 28,000 Interior employees surveyed said they experienced harassment or discrimination within the prior 12 months due to age, gender, race, ethnicity, disability, or sexual orientation. In addition, approximately 200 employees said they had been sexually assaulted during that period.
In a press release, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke vowed to pursue department-wide culture change but his release contained the following statement indicating a troubling uncertainty about a key dynamic enabling widespread and persistent harassment and discrimination:
“And if managers are the problem, we will deal with of them [sic].” (emphasis added)
Yet, key findings inside the Survey’s Technical Report point clearly to management complicity as a driving force behind continuing harassment but were not highlighted in survey summaries:
- No action was taken following nearly two-thirds (64.2%) of the complaints. In less than 5% of cases was “some official career action…taken against person(s) involved”;
- More than a third (38.7%) of “employees were encouraged to drop the issue” and nearly a third (32.3%) “were discouraged from making a complaint/grievance/report”; and
- More than a quarter (29.1%) of employees “indicated leadership punished them for bringing the experience up” and more than one in six (15.4%) said “they were threatened with loss of employment.”
“Interior not only has a culture of harassment but one of retaliation, as well,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Harassment and discrimination can only persist with management concurrence or participation.”
Interior’s press release also states that Zinke and Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt “have been on the forefront of instilling a culture change through swift personnel actions, transparency and a zero-tolerance policy.” And in a video to employees, Zinke claimed to have fired four senior officials whom he did not name, despite promising transparency. Moreover, President Trump’s failure to nominate members to the Merit Systems Protection Board has left this civil service court unable to function, which undermines the ability to swiftly finalize personnel actions or to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.
“Secretary Zinke’s strategy appears to rely on the same managers who nurtured this dysfunctional culture to cure it,” added Ruch, pointing out that a key Zinke step of appointing a cadre of “ombuds” does not appear to be effective as they have no authority to act and merely refer cases back to the agency. “Until Secretary Zinke targets retaliation as well as harassment, little will change.”