WASHINGTON -- The State Department’s internal watchdog says there was a 63% surge in sexual harassment complaints at the agency between 2014 and 2017 but that the frequency of incidents is likely higher.
In a report released on Friday, the department’s inspector general said there had been 636 reports of sexual harassment over that period, encompassing the end of the Obama administration and the beginning of the Trump administration, but that the number is almost certainly low due to alleged victims’ unwillingness to report all cases.
The finding comes amid more general concerns and complaints of poor morale at the department that have increased during the Trump administration as U.S. diplomats and their support staff have come under increasing political pressure and criticism from top administration officials. Those concerns have been documented in previous reports by the inspector general and others.
“Although the number of reports has increased, (the inspector general) concludes that sexual harassment is likely still underreported at the department,” it said. A random survey of employees found that 47% of those who said they had experienced or observed workplace sexual harassment within the past two years had not reported it, according to the report.
The report said that a lack of confidence among employees that their complaints would be taken seriously or acted upon was most likely to blame for such underreporting despite efforts to improve the situation.
“Reasons for this include a lack of confidence in the department’s ability to resolve sexual harassment complaints, fear of retaliation, reluctance to discuss the harassment, lack of understanding of the reporting process, and, in some cases, specific advice not to make reports,” it said.
The department said that it takes all allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment “extremely seriously” and is working to improve its response.
“Acts of harassment not only erode the moral integrity of the department but threatens our mission of promoting and demonstrating our democratic values to advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world,” the department said.
The report said State Department officials had taken some steps to address the problem, including mandating that employees take a course on sexual harassment awareness, they had yet to require supervisors to report incidents to higher-ups, something the inspector general had recommended in a previous report in 2014.
It also faulted the lack until recently of a timeliness standard for handling complaints. A review of 20 complaints found that the average time to complete an investigation was 21 months, with one case taking more than four years, possibly contributing to the problem.
In addition, inconsistency in the disciplinary process for offenders may contribute to the problem, because different offices have “individual systems for tracking sexual harassment data” that do not record the same information or share it.
“With no means of measuring the consistency of its programs, and no common tracking system to analyze sexual harassment and data, department leadership has limited ability to effectively manage these programs,” the report said.