GAO: VA Needs Better Sexual Harassment Protection for its Employees

A report released by the Government Accountability Office regarding the testimony before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and the Women Veterans Task Force, Committee on Veterans’ Affairs before the House of Representatives was released in July 2020. The report evaluated the extent to which VA policies prevent and address sexual harassment of VA employees; how data informs VA concerning sexual harassment of its employees; and the extent to which the VA provides training to its employees to address sexual harassment. It includes a survey conducted by the Merit Systems Protection Board in 2016, which indicated approximately 22 percent of VA employees and 14 percent of federal employees experience some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Resources Used for the Report

An exhaustive list of data and federal laws and policy was used. Federal laws, regulations, and policy and program documents were reviewed. VA’s sexual harassment complaint data between 2014 and 2019 and data from the most recent Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) survey in 2016 was used. Interviews of VA officials and staff from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) were taken into consideration. Interviews of union officials and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) officials were also conducted.

The VA has three methods to address sexual harassment complaints. This consists of management address the issue, the Harassment Prevention Program (HPP) working with management to ensure the issue is addressed, and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) process addressing the issue. Managers address sexual harassment allegations by conducting informal investigations and taking corrective actions. Actions include providing training or disciplinary action. HPP has been in effect since 2016. Its purpose is to prevent harassment before it becomes unlawful. HPP staff ensure managers take the appropriate steps to stop harassment and prevent it from recurring. VA employees can file complaints through the EEO process. These complaints are intended to “promptly, fairly, and impartially process and investigate allegations of discrimination based on a Title VII-protected class, such as sex or race.”

EEO Organizational Structures

According to the report, VA’s EEO organizational structure does not adhere to EEOC’s Management Directive 110. This directive states agency officials responsible for executing and advising on personnel actions cannot also be responsible for managing, advising, or overseeing the EEO complaint process. VA indicated that in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 its EEO Director oversaw both VA’s personnel functions and EEO functions. In April 2020, EEOC officials informed GAO the VA’s EEO Director position remained out of compliance. GAO’s report recommended the “VA realign its EEO Director position to adhere to EEOC’s directive by ensuring the position is not responsible for personnel functions.” It stated that having the same person in charge of general oversight of EEO complaint processes and personnel actions create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Misalignment of EEO Program Manager Positions

VA officials stated that full-time EEO Program Managers report to the Office of Resolution Management (ORM) Instead of the director of their local facility. GAO noted two of VA’s three administrations are structured differently. VA officials said this is done so as to prevent conflicts of interest, ensure the position is neutral, and complies with the statutory requirement that such employees not report to the facility director. GAO recommended the VA plan for the VHA’s EEO Program Manager realignment.

Finalization of HPP

GAO noted the HPP’s policies nor its handbook of implementation guidance has been approved by the VA. Officials blame the delay to multiple revisions to ensure the documents are clear and comprehensive. VA officials stated VA employees are aware of HPP through VA’s sexual harassment policy and website. GAO concluded the VA’s failure to approve and distribute its guidance and policy has led to inconsistent implementation and lack of awareness of HPP.

Limitations in Sexual Harassment Data

According to VA policy, HPP is required to provide centralized tracking, monitoring, and reporting to proactively address harassment allegations. GAO found the complaint data ORM uses to understand the severity of sexual harassment incomplete. It found HPP lacks comprehensive information on all reported allegations, such as MSPB surveys. GAO recommended VA require managers to report all sexual harassment complaints to ORM. VA agreed and stated it would implement a new system to address it by the end of September 2021.

Limited Training on Sexual Harassment to Employees

GAO found VA trainings lack in-depth information on how to identify and address sexual harassment. It noted they contain no information about HPP and contained one or no sexual harassment scenarios to help employees understand prohibited behaviors. GAO recommended the VA required additional training for all VA employees on identifying and addressing sexual harassment, while also including the HPP process.


GAO described the importance of an agency’s ability to address workplace sexual harassment. It argued VA employees may continue to distrust VA’s handling of allegations. GAO noted VA’s core values of integrity, advocacy, respect, and deliver the highest quality services to the nation’s veterans may be compromised if sexual harassment is not properly addressed. It concluded the VA may create a safer work environment for its employees if its recommendations were to be implemented.

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