By Deborah Hopkins, December 13, 2017
You probably saw last week that Time Magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year is not a person at all, but rather is a group of people: “The Silence Breakers,” the women who came forward under #MeToo as victims of sexual harassment and assault.
This #MeToo movement continues to reveal more details of sexual misconduct in the workplace, and more horrifying details of sexual misconduct – from the highest levels – are coming out. It may seem like “guilty until proven innocent” is the trend in Hollywood (think Matt Lauer; Kevin Spacey; Harvey Weinstein), but keep in mind that there’s a lot we don’t know about why those ramifications hit so quickly. There could have been admissions, confessions, or agreements to resign.
What we do know is that because of these front-page stories, there is now a heightened awareness and sensitivity to sexual harassment and related inappropriate conduct in the federal government. Sexual misconduct among federal employees is not anything new, but because it’s a topic on everyone’s minds, it’s worth a deeper look today.
First of all, sexual harassment is a term of art and while it’s easy to allege, it’s actually not that easy to prove. There are elements to a sexual harassment claim, and the complaining employee must prove them all in order to prevail. So, there is a LOT of inappropriate conduct that does not rise to the level of Title VII sexual harassment but is still inappropriate in the workplace.
What does this mean for you, at your agency? It means you should not wait to discipline an employee who engages in inappropriate sexual conduct until a complaint of sexual harassment is filed or proven. The EEO complaint process takes so long, you could have a predator roaming the halls of your agency for years before there’s ever a finding. So do not delay.
A lesson we learned from the Postal Service 30 years ago is that an agency can remove an employee for inappropriate sexual conduct, even if the conduct does not rise to the level of Title VII harassment. It bolsters the agency’s case for removal if the employee’s conduct affects other agency employees, and if the agency has a legitimate concern about incurring potential Title VII liability if it fails to take appropriate action to correct the employee’s behavior. See Carosella v. USPS, 816 F.2d 638 (Fed. Cir. 1987). Part of an agency’s obligation in these cases is to promptly investigate and STOP harassment from occurring, so acting quickly is the best way to protect employees from harm – and to protect your agency from liability.
So, what kinds of cases warrant removal as an appropriate penalty? Let’s look at a few.
Supervisors are held to a higher standard than co-workers, so if the perpetrator is a supervisor we know that removal can be warranted, especially when there are multiple charges of inappropriate sexual behavior toward subordinates. Last year the MSPB affirmed a supervisor’s removal for Unacceptable Conduct where the supervisor made inappropriate comments with sexual undertones to several subordinates, including telling an employee that he was willing to help her cheat on her husband, and telling a different employee that she could take the day off if she was willing to act “a little unprofessional.“ Oliveros-Ballon v. USPS, SF-0752-15-0615-I-1 (April 15, 2016)(NP).
In another recent case, a supervisor’s removal was affirmed after she made comments of a sex-based nature and touched an employee on the buttocks on multiple occasions. That’s right, female supervisors engage in this type of behavior as well, and are disciplined accordingly. Reid v. Air Force, CH-0752-14-0849-I-1 (April 5, 2016) (NP).
Over at the VA, a supervisor’s removal was affirmed after he was charged with 20 counts of inappropriate and intimidating sexual comments, sexual conduct, and changes to working conditions, of his female employees. Alberto v. VA, 98 MSPR 50 (2004).
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of cases that follow this same line of outcome, but hopefully by now you get the idea. Sexual misconduct – regardless of what you decide to call the charge – is nothing new and agencies have been successfully removing supervisors for decades over inappropriate sexual language and conduct in the workplace.
In the case of a non-supervisor, though, removal is often still an appropriate penalty. Earlier this year, the Federal Circuit upheld a removal for Unacceptable Conduct where the appellant made 10 vulgar sexual comments to female customers and coworkers. Canarios v. USPS, No. 2017-1935 (Fed. Cir. 2017) (NP). In another recent case, an MSPB AJ upheld a Conduct Unbecoming removal when an appellant made sexual comments and gestures at three coworkers and did not stop after they objected to his conduct. Adkins v. DOD, SF-0752-16-0294-I-1 (December 12, 2016) (NP).
A Treasury employee’s removal was upheld by the MSPB because he continued to talk to a coworker in sexually offensive and derogatory terms, after being explicitly told by management not to do so. Lentine v. Treasury, 94 MSPR 676 (2003). [Editor’s Note: This is critical and sometimes, this is hard. Before we can discipline, the employee has to be on notice of the prohibited misconduct. Some conduct obviously violates accepted norms of behavior and can be disciplined even if we did not tell the employee not to do it; e.g., non-consensual sexual touching. On the other hand, some conduct is not so obviously inappropriate; e.g., touching someone’s shoulder. The manner and context of conduct often determines whether the employee should have known not to do it; e.g., was the shoulder touch an “Atta boy/girl” congratulation or was it a “Hey, baby. You got some nice sexy shoulders there.” The good news is that a supervisor can establish rules that clarify any gray areas; e.g., “No touching. Anywhere. Any time.”]
This is serious stuff that requires appropriate action.
If you’re dealing with a potential sexual misconduct charge, you’ll want to pay special attention to these mitigating or aggravating factors in penalty selection for sexual harassment cases:
- Physical contact
- Frequency or severity of the conduct,
- Supervisory status,
- Clarity with which employee is on notice of rules prohibiting sexual harassment and improper conduct, and
- The employee’s potential for rehabilitation.
See, e.g., Reid, supra.
Is there a correct way to handle in these cases? Yes. The answer is to take prompt, effective corrective action so that these behaviors do not continue. Look to the cases for guidance. And hey, while it seemed for a while that Congress was above it all, we’re finally starting to see that in sexual misconduct is a serious offense, and it deserves consequences, no matter who you are. Hopkins@FELTG.com