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Pervasive sexual harassment reported at several National Parks

Yellowstone and Yosemite are rightly California's pride -- two of the most beautiful national parks in the U.S. Unfortunately, the management of these and other parks has been problematic. According to a deputy inspector general for the Department of Interior, upper management has tolerated the problem for far too long.

"There is a pervasive perception by many employees in some bureaus that contacting the OIG to report wrongdoing places them in jeopardy of retaliation," she said in congressional testimony. "We often learn that management makes more effort to identify the source of a complaint than to explore whether the complaint has merit."

Sexual harassment, hostile work environments, and other forms of employment discrimination are prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which also prohibits retaliation. However, the deputy inspector general says the Department of the Interior OIG felt it necessary to create a special whistleblower program so that DOI employees would feel comfortable coming forward with their complaints.

What's the trouble at Yellowstone and Yosemite?

According to the Courthouse News Service, investigators at Yellowstone "found credible evidence that male supervisors and staff in the maintenance division unit created a work environment that included unwelcome and inappropriate comments and actions toward women." Worse, the supervisors' behavior "tolerated and even fostered by a men's club environment - one of insensitivity and arrogance toward other Yellowstone employees - that was pervasive."

There is also evidence that upper management was not in the habit of disciplining employees. For example, one of the maintenance supervisors was caught violating the on-site housing rules by opening them up to foreign visitors. He was actually transferred and promoted.

"The appearance of rewarding bad behavior is not the desired outcome - nor a proper deterrent" reads the report.

At Yosemite, the problem appears to be a single supervisor who managed to generate 12 unrelated allegations of misconduct including discrimination, a hostile work environment, harassment and belittling of employees, bias and favoritism. Amazingly, investigators found no evidence that the man had actually based any management decision on favoritism or bias, but said "his management style may have contributed to what some Yosemite employees perceived as inappropriate behavior."

Indeed, employees interviewed about their experience with the supervisor said "he sometimes communicated poorly; that he could be dismissive, abrupt, or overly critical; and that he would often publicly criticize and undermine employees after he lost confidence in them. Some felt the official's treatment of them was personal or motivated by factors such as gender bias, while others accepted his behavior and did not believe he was aware of it."

Other parks are affected, too. The deputy inspector general called "pattern and practice of sexual harassment at Grand Canyon National Park provided a glaring example of Park Service management failing to take proper action when employees reported wrongdoing."

At Glacier National Park, a 67-year-old, male employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was sentenced to six months in federal custody and ordered to pay $22,000 in victim restitution. He pled guilty to sexually abusing a co-worker.

Why is the 'men's club' so pervasive in the Parks Service?

It's impossible to guess what may have been the origin of such a persistently hostile work environment, but it's a good bet it has something to do with upper management. The first reason is that so many employees from different parks reported similar problems.

Second, many workers reported that the sexual harassment or misconduct was persistent and ever-present, meaning that mid-line supervisors like the accused felt very little fear that exposure could hurt their careers.

Finally, the deputy inspector general's report that many employees fear retaliation is troubling. Combine that with at least one instance in which a supervisor was accused of wrongdoing and then promoted and you may have a real problem.

Diagnose the case based on the symptoms. Mid-level supervisors are brazen. Lower-level workers are complaining, but many are too scared to complain. Whatever the origin of the problem, it's clear there needs to be a shake-up at the top levels of the agency.

If you work for the Parks Service or have suffered sexual harassment at your job, your first step should be to call an employment attorney for advice. An experienced lawyer can help you determine whether you have a case, document your experiences and take the right steps to protect your rights.

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