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Thousands of Interior Employees Report Harassment and Intimidation at Work

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke - TAMI HEILEMANN/US DEPT. OF INTERIOR
  • Tami Heilemann/US Dept. of Interior
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

By EMILY COCHRANE
© 2017 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Thousands of the Interior Department’s employees reported that they had experienced harassment or intimidation at work, a departmentwide survey conducted earlier this year and released Thursday found.

Of the nearly 30,000 employees who reported on their experiences, about 35 percent said they felt some form of harassment and intimidation, often related to their age or gender. More than 85 percent of those employees said they had to continue to interact with the person responsible for the mistreatment.

“This is a breach of public trust,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in an interview, adding that he had personally fired four people over accusations of harassment. “Harassment — intimidation — is a cancer that can destroy even the best organizations.”

In the survey, 8 percent of employees reported sexual harassment, 20 percent reported negative treatment based on their age and 16 percent based on their sex. About 44 percent of the department’s 70,000 employees responded to the survey.

“It has to start from the top,” Zinke said. “But we have to remove this cancer immediately because it is distracting from our ability to successfully carry out our mission.”

Department officials are working to strengthen the policies on harassment based on the survey results and have trained about 100 employees on how to conduct investigations into allegations.

Over the past decade, the Interior Department has primarily been dogged by reports of harassment and intimidation within the National Park Service. More than a quarter of the nearly 10,000 park employees who responded had experienced or witnessed some form of harassment, officials said in a portion of the survey released earlier this year.

The survey also demonstrated the lack of consequences when allegations of harassment or intimidation were reported to managers within the Interior Department. While 76 percent of the respondents said they took action if they witnessed an abuse of power, roughly 40 percent said either the person they told took no action or they felt encouraged to drop the issue.

Following the survey results, David Bernhardt, the agency’s deputy secretary, said he would require department heads to develop ways to address the issues reported in each bureau before the end of January.

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