In outlining a zero tolerance policy for combatting sexual harassment across the National Park Service, Director Jon Jarvis and his National Leadership Council have laid down a roadmap to both support victims and punish those who prey on their coworkers.
A confidential hotline is being established for individuals to report sexual harassment and to seek counseling or advice; a system-wide survey of employees will be undertaken this fall to determine how extensive sexual harassment is; and “appropriate disciplinary action” is to be taken against perpetrators if allegations are confirmed.
Unfortunately, due to rules that prevent Park Service managers from discussing personnel matters, it could be hard to know how effective this new policy will be. Plus, there are cases that inevitably fall through the cracks or are ignored, as the situation at Grand Canyon National Park illustrates.
And that’s lamentable, both for victims and the workforce as a whole. Far and away, the NPS workforce is dedicated to its mission, well-respected, and a tribute to the Service. Unfortunately, publicity surrounding the sexual harassment cases at the Grand Canyon and Canaveral National Seashore, how the cases are handled, and the lack of public (and workforce) knowledge around how they are resolved, hangs over the agency.
Sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior is not new to the Park Service, nor is the agency's struggle to police it.
Not too many years ago there was an employee who was involved in a number of Peeping Tom incidents that stretched through at least three parks. There were complaints filed, the individual was actually arrested and convicted in at least one incident and reportedly served jail time while on administrative leave, yet still managed to rise to assistant superintendent at a park.
More recently, the chief ranger at Canaveral National Seashore in Florida was found by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General to have “shown a pattern of sexual harassment involving the law enforcement employee and two other female employees at (Canaveral National Seashore). We found that on December 4, 2015, he took the law enforcement employee to the home of a park volunteer and made an unwanted sexual advance toward her in the volunteer’s bedroom.
“We also found that he sexually harassed another employee in 2015 by repeatedly complimenting her on her physical appearance, giving her unwanted and unsolicited tokens of affection, asking her out on dates, and attempting to engage her in conversation about sexually explicit content in movies. In 2011, he harassed the third employee by repeatedly asking her out and calling her on her personal cell phone after duty hours. Overall, the law enforcement supervisor refused to accept full responsibility for his actions concerning any of the three women.”
The OIG referred the matter to Director Jarvis’s office “for action.” What action, if any, the director took is not known, publicly. The Park Service’s chief spokesman did not respond to questions about the case's status.
Today’s Park Service managers have to follow a plethora of Office of Personnel Management rules, and deal with labor unions, when it comes to disciplining their employees. While those rules were established to protect employees and keep a good employee from being arbitrarily fired or reassigned due to political pressure, they can also impede attempts to discipline or remove employees.
Part of those rules require park managers to design a "Performance Improvement Plan" in an effort to get an employee back on track. These documents can serve a dual purpose in building a record against the employee.
"You essentially have to have a long period of documentation against a set of standards, and you have to have a Performance Improvement Plan put in place," Director Jarvis told me in 2014 during a conversation we had about accountability in the Service. “I put a guy on a PIP at Mount Rainier, and the No. 1 standard was, 'Show up at work on Monday mornings at 8 o’clock and call me on your phone from your office.' And in 90 days he never, ever, succeeded. And so I removed him."
Even if managers are successful in dismissing an employee, the situation can turn ugly quickly.
“I did this more than once when I became the regional director in the Pacific West. I removed a park superintendent who I felt had violated a number of things, and geez, for the next two years I was dealing with that individual. From threats to newspaper articles and attacks,” Director Jarvis said.
“And so, if you're going to do that, you have to be willing to accept that’s going to be your life for the next couple of years. I removed an employee at Craters of the Moon, I was pretty sure she was going to kill me for quite a while, literally,” he added. “You have to be willing to take that on as a supervisor, as a superintendent, and not everybody is willing to do that. You have to have a support network there that will back you up.
“I have seen some data around, we have done employee surveys, and they’ve looked at employees talking about whether the Service is willing to take on a non-performer within the organization, and we generally don’t score very well on that category. And that’s too bad. Part of that is the federal employee is a highly protected position. It’s a challenge to take them on.”
Park Service employees below Senior Executive Service status are particularly hard to remove. If, for example, an incoming superintendent wants to install his/her own deputy, they can’t simply do that. They might be able to negotiate the transfer of the resident deputy, but that would require finding a position of equal GS rank that was open and which the individual would agree to take.
Plus, that superintendent couldn’t simply fill the deputy’s position with a person of their choice without opening it to other Park Service employees.
That the Park Service is trying to tackle the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace head-on is good to know. That they have so many hurdles to clear to succeed is unfortunate.