HERSHEL W. GOBER
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
April 17, 1997
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I appear before you today on behalf of Secretary Jesse Brown to testify about VA's policies and practices regarding sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination in the workplace.
This has been a matter of utmost importance to Secretary Brown and myself from the very beginning. I was sworn in as Deputy Secretary on February 3, 1993. One week later I was at the Atlanta VA Medical Center dealing with a terrible sexual harassment case that we had inherited. While I was there, I promised our employees that this Administration would not tolerate anything that would keep them from devoting their full attention to serving veterans. Secretary Brown and I have worked hard ever since to fulfill that promise.
Very early on, Secretary Brown established a policy of "zero tolerance" of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination within the Department of Veterans Affairs. I strongly support this policy. Any and every allegation of sexual harassment or discrimination is thoroughly investigated, and when evidence supports the allegation, VA takes action to protect victims, and offenders are disciplined within the range of options allowed by law and supported by the evidence.
In saying this, however, it is relevant to clarify that "zero tolerance" does not mean that all offenders will, in every instance, be removed from federal service. Sexual harassment and discrimination can encompass such a broad range of conduct that removal from federal service may not always be the most appropriate or legal remedy.
Secretary Brown and I have done everything we know of to support a "zero tolerance" policy regarding sexual harassment. He has issued letters to all VA employees expressing his strong commitment to diversity, equal employment opportunity, and the prevention of sexual harassment. The Secretary has asked everyone to join him in making the effort needed to uphold this commitment.
In countless speeches to VA employees, we have emphasized and reemphasized this policy. Consistent with these efforts, the Department has developed a program designed to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination by all employees, not just by senior executives. The program takes a three-pronged approach: communication, training, and policy development.
The Secretary issued his first all-VA employee letter on sexual harassment in 1993. That letter has been followed by four others dealing with EEO and sexual harassment issues. In each, there has been an articulation of VA's policy, along with specific guidance on how to implement that policy.
VA has developed an extensive employee training program on prevention of sexual harassment and discrimination. We understand this is one of the most comprehensive programs of its type in the federal government.
In 1993, Secretary Brown established a requirement that all employees receive four hours of training about the prevention of sexual harassment and discrimination, followed by refresher training every two years. Every employee in VA was directed to receive four hours of training in 1993 and early 1994, and every employee was directed to receive two hours of refresher training in 1995 and 1996. By the end of 1996, every VA employee also had received training in valuing diversity. Both Secretary Brown and I participated in these training sessions.
In addition, VA has an on-going training program for managers and supervisors concerning VA's equal employment opportunity programs, and their responsibilities under those programs. VA has also significantly improved its training for EEO professionals, to include counselors, investigators, and program managers.
In the area of policy development, in VA Circular 00-94-2, dated February 25, 1993, VA established a requirement that all allegations of sexual harassment be elevated above the field facility level, to the Veterans Health Administration Network or Veterans Benefits Administration area directors, for a higher level review to determine whether intervention is necessary to protect an employee or VA from harm, pending a full investigation and resolution of the allegations. That Circular has expired, but its requirements are being incorporated in VA Directives 5975 and 5977. In order to encourage employees to bring forward their allegations, and protect them when they do so, on May 26, 1993, VA established a requirement for a higher level review of all complaints of reprisal and retaliation. For those employees who wish to remain anonymous, VA has established a sexual harassment and discrimination hotline, where employees can report misconduct and find out what to do about it. The hotline number is 1-800-767-0184.
Other relevant policy developments include:
workforce diversity and meet timeliness requirements for processing complaints.
In practice, over the past four years, we have had nine cases involving senior management officials in which we have taken action based on allegations of sexual harassment or related matters. In seven cases, the executives resigned or retired. In the other two instances, the executives were taken out of the Senior Executive Service and placed in a lower-graded positions.
I would like to address briefly the one case that precipitated this hearing, that of the Director of the Fayetteville VA Medical Center who was alleged to have engaged in sexual harassment. Following an investigation, VA management seriously considered proposing his removal from federal service, but had significant doubts that the evidence would sustain removal action on appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board or in the courts. As a result, a negotiated settlement was reached with the Director. To date, the former Director steadfastly denies the allegations.
That agreement insured the Director's removal from the station, from the directorship of any VA facility, from the Senior Executive Service, and from any supervisory position, but it permitted him to continue as a government employee without loss of pay. I understand that some view VA's decision to reach that agreement as indicative of a lack of management's concern about sexual harassment, or possibly as a VA practice of protecting senior managers from the consequences of improper actions. I want to assure you in the strongest possible terms that it does not.
If the verifiable evidence had been such that management was reasonably confident that the Merit Systems Protection Board, or the courts, would have sustained removal from
federal service, then that action would have been pursued to its conclusion. It is important to reiterate that management felt it was extremely important -- from the standpoint of both the provision of health-care services to veterans and the work environment for our employees at this facility -- that the Director be removed from his management position and relieved of all supervisory responsibilities. Accordingly, VA entered into a settlement with him under which he was transferred out of the Fayetteville VA Medical Center. He also resigned from the Senior Executive Service and was reduced in grade and rank to a non-supervisory, GS-14 position. By these actions, management achieved what were considered to be the most critical objectives.
What concerns us most about this matter is that it has damaged VA's standing with some of our women employees and women veterans, and that is most regrettable. As I have indicated, we have taken many serious actions over the past four years to try to ensure that all of our employees have a workplace where they feel secure and safe from discrimination and harassment of any kind. We believe that this is very important for their well-being and for our ability to provide veterans with the health care and other benefits and services they deserve.
To strengthen our employees' protections further in light of the Fayetteville case, the Secretary has taken two additional recent actions:
VA recently conducted a Department-wide survey to determine employee perceptions of how VA handles sexual harassment. To ensure the survey was conducted objectively and professionally, an outside contractor was chosen. The results of this survey will be available by the end of June.
In addition, Secretary Brown has decided to write a letter to all VA employees reassuring them of VA's continuing commitment to ensuring that VA employees are free of discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. This letter will remind our employees of the means available to them to deal with any problems they may encounter in these areas.
We are optimistic that these measures together with all of our efforts over the past four years are serving to reduce -- and, we hope, to move toward the elimination of -- sexual harassment and discrimination in VA.
Mr. Chairman and members of this Committee, if there were one thing that I wish I could accomplish at this hearing today, it would be to reassure all of our employees that VA continues to support its policy of "zero tolerance" of discrimination and sexual harassment. We want them to know that this is our policy, and we would ask them to judge us on the strength of our entire record of actions in this area and our expressed commitment to address this difficult problem.
We will be doing all we can to get this message across to our employees and managers, and we would welcome any suggestions you may have to help us accomplish this.
I am available to answer your questions, as are the VA staff members who have accompanied me.