Nearly 30% of FEMA Employees Say They have Experienced Workplace Harassment

Nearly 30% of FEMA Employees Say They have Experienced Workplace Harassment
A Turkish military flight crew member, right, bumps elbows with a FEMA worker as crews unload a donation of medical supplies from Turkey in April. (Photo: Patrick Semansky, AP)

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has an internal emergency to manage. Nearly a third of its employees said they’ve experienced sexual and/or racial harassment at work, a survey released Wednesday shows.

The survey was conducted by RAND Corporation in the wake of allegations that a senior FEMA official had sexual harassed many agency workers, which came out in July 2018. The agency commissioned the report to help it grasp the extent of its toxic workplace culture. The findings are alarming.

The survey shows that civil rights violations are “common” occurrence at FEMA. Of 8,946 FEMA personnel who responded to the survey, 29% said they’d experienced harassment in some form. Violations were most commonly experienced among employees who work in FEMA’s administrator’s office, versus in other parts of the agency, like its 10 regional offices.

Twenty per cent of respondents, mostly women, said they’d faced sexual or gender-related harassment or discrimination. That include 12% of women and 4.4% of men (the survey includes only these two binary genders) who reported that they’d experienced sexual violations, and 22.8% of women and 12% per cent of men said they’d been the victim of gendered violations, such as offensive comments. The RAND survey data represents nearly half of the 19,917 FEMA personnel invited to participate.

Race was another source of harassment at the agency. Nearly 19% of employees, most commonly people of colour, said they faced harassment or discrimination based on their race, “such as when colleagues displayed materials that threaten or insult a racial/ethnic group or repeatedly told jokes derogatory of a particular racial/ethnic group,” the survey says. That included 28.5% of respondents who identify as multiracial, 23.1% of Black respondents, 20.9% of Asian respondents, 18.5% of Hispanic respondents. 15.9% of white respondents also said they’d experienced violations of this kind.

“Even though the data from this survey is more than a year and a half behind us, these findings are alarming and simply not acceptable,” FEMA Administrator Pete Gaynor said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.

Harassment in the workplace frequently goes unreported. A 2018 survey found that 81% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace at some point. But another survey found that 99.8% of people who experience sexual harassment at work never file a sexual harassment charge, often because they fear retaliation. The report bears that out. Most participants said they never reported the violations they experienced. For the roughly one-third who did, they reported they “were either neutral or dissatisfied with FEMA’s response.” There were also many reports of retaliation.

FEMA has consistently ranked poorly in terms of workplace morale in Boston Consulting Group’s annual federal agency and subagency rankings. Last year, it was in the bottom fifth of subagencies, scoring a 57.1 on the firm’s scale. That’s actually an improvement from its nadir in 2015. Among categories federal employees rank for the assessment, FEMA did especially poorly in teamwork. The new RAND report provides some insight into why that might be.

RAND made suggestions for the agency to tackle these urgent issues, including launching prevention efforts to “address all problematic behaviours, not just the ones making headlines,” looking into interventions with those in leadership positions and training them on their responsibilities to handle these charges when they come up, and holding supervisors accountable for concerns of retaliation. Making sure the government’s first responders have a safe place to work is vital given the role they play in disaster response and the very real phenomenon of disaster fatigue taking its toll in other ways.

“FEMA’s leaders are now equipped with information about individual and organizational behaviour at multiple levels, as well as workforce beliefs about reporting behaviour,” Carra Sims, a senior behavioural and social scientist at RAND and co-author of the report, said in a statement. “That is information with which they could promote change.”