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US State Department Reportedly Not So Great at Handling Sex Harassment

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report in September reflecting its evaluation of the U.S. Department of State’s (State) handling of sexual harassment complaints. Its conclusion: the agency has significant work to do to create confidence in the organization.

Harassment complaints increased by 63% over the three-year period from 2014 to 2017. Yet, some State employees believe that number is low, asserting that employees do not report harassment due to a “lack of confidence in the department’s ability to resolve complaints, fear of retaliation, and reluctance to discuss the harassment with others.” While the State Department has undertaken some measures to increase awareness of sexual harassment issues, supervisors did not receive updated guidance on these measures. Without consistent information, the agency created confusion and failed to create a clear structure for processing complaints. The OIG’s report comes not long after a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (OCR) report from April 2020 which also criticized the State Department’s poor sexual harassment reporting procedures. The OCR found a lack of accountability from senior leaders and insufficient training, which fostered a work environment that allowed abusers to continue abusing.

In responding to the latest report, the State Department stated that it takes allegations of harassment and discrimination very seriously and that it has policies in place prohibiting such conduct. Three Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill in the House of Representatives seeking to reinforce policies against sexual harassment at the State Department. The proposal includes the creation of an “Office of Employee Advocacy” that would provide victims with legal counsel as well as a 24/7 international hotline.