Efforts in the previous Congress to pass legislation mandating sexual assault and harassment reforms at the Department of State stalled in committee, so representatives have now turned to new State Department leadership to enact reforms at the agency.
Reps. Jackie Spier, D-Calif., Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and 35 other members of the House sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken May 25, calling on the new agency head to enact executive reforms that mirror many of the provisions in their original legislation.
“We write to voice concerns about long-standing issues of sexual harassment and assault at the department and to urge you to use executive authority to advance many of the provisions in H.R. 8465, the State Harassment and Assault Prevention and Eradication (SHAPE) Act, introduced in the previous Congress,” the representatives wrote.
“For years, civil service and foreign service officers have spoken out about misconduct, including sexual harassment and assault, and a lack of accountability for such misconduct at the department.”
Namely, the letter requests that Blinken introduce five reforms from the legislation:
• Section 2 – A comprehensive policy for the department on the prevention of and response to harassment, discrimination, sexual assault, and related retaliation involving employees, contractors and officials;
• Section 3 – A robust definition of harassment, clear guidance on the responsibilities of and coordination between offices, and timeliness standards for the investigation of harassment complaints;
• Section 4 – Comprehensive sexual assault protocol and guidelines that conform to best practices in the field;
• Section 6 – Employee climate surveys assessing the prevalence of harassment, discrimination, sexual assault and related retaliation and comfort with the reporting and resolution mechanisms;
• Section 8 – Robust training for supervisors, bystanders, managers and senior leadership.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the agency’s inspector general both found last year that the Department of State needed to do more to ensure that sexual assault and harassment cases are treated and tracked appropriately.
“The OIG review of the department’s Office of Civil Rights data found that between 2014 and 2017, reports of sexual harassment increased by 63 percent and reports of sexual assault increased by 71 percent at the department,” the representatives wrote.
“This is likely an underestimate, since an OIG survey also found that 47 percent of employees who experienced or observed sexual harassment within the last two years did not report it, in part due to lack of confidence in the department’s ability to resolve complaints, fear of retaliation and damaging ‘corridor reputation,’ and reluctance to discuss the harassment with others.”
The letter requested that Blinken also look into available sexual harassment and assault data after 2017 to determine trends and make public the agency’s progress toward reducing such cases within its workforce.
“We recognize this is not an exhaustive list of reforms that the department has the authority to undertake, and we encourage you to evaluate other proposed or possible changes in order to further safety, equity, and respect in the workplace,” the representatives wrote.
“We request a staff briefing from appropriate representatives in the department, including representatives from the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Office of Civil Rights, Global Talent Management, and Diplomatic Security, within 60 days of receipt of this letter on agency efforts to address harassment, discrimination and assault, including progress made in moving forward with the proposed changes.”
The State Department has also struggled in recent years to even out the number of minorities and women in leadership positions, as the Government Accountability Office found in February 2020 that the agency’s racial and gender percentages in the lower ranks did not hold equal further up the promotional ladder.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.