WASHINGTON – Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen came under fire Thursday for her department’s handling of sexual harassment complaints, the same issue that led to the retirement of her predecessor as chief.
Christiansen, the former Arizona State Forester, was grilled by members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who also heard explicit testimony from a former employee who said she had faced abusive behavior in several posts.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were visibly upset by the lack of response to a letter from 119 current and former female Forest Service employees complaining of harassment and being silenced.
The issue is not new – the previous Forest Service chief, Tony Tooke, stepped down this spring amid sexual harassment accusations and Christiansen took his place. She said she has been working on the issue, but committee members at the hearing stressed the burden is now on her to get something done quickly.
“It is your watch and it is a unique opportunity today and in the nascent stages of your tenure to send a clear, unmistakable message,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, and the committee chairman. “I think the time of transition is precisely the right time to send this message as clearly as you can possibly deliver it.”
Christiansen testified that the agency has established a new code of conduct to make sure expectations are clear. She said it has hosted “Listen and Learn” sessions earlier this year for employees to express concerns, as well as a “Stand Up for Each Other” event to explain the obligation employees have to look out for their colleagues.
But even those efforts can backfire, according to the letter from the 119 women employees.
“We want you to understand, we have real concerns that through your ‘Stand Up’ program, you are putting the burden on us to ‘stand up’ and speak out about harassment, when you have not made it a safe environment to do so,” their letter said.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-New York, demanded to know why Christiansen had not yet responded to the women’s letter, the agency received last week. Christiansen said she had been busy dealing with the wildfires raging in California, but Maloney did not back down.
“If you’re not going to respond to them, would you respond to this committee?” Maloney asked.
Maloney picked up on the letter’s criticisms of the “Listen and Learn” and “Stand Up” sessions.
The women said they had been required to attend sessions facilitated by men accused of harassment. Those men would joke about sexual harassment and slept through sessions while employees retold their stories, the letter said.
“This doesn’t sound like a listening session to me, chief,” Maloney said. “This sounds like a harassment session.”
Gowdy was incredulous that sessions had women recounting their harassment next to men who had been accused.
“How in the hell can you have the perpetrator in the room with the victim?” he asked. “I can’t think of anything that has a more chilling effect on someone being able to tell their story than having the perpetrator present.”
Christiansen said she is doing what she can to enforce the agency’s zero-tolerance policy, but changing the culture will take time.
That defense “falls very short,” said Shannon Reed, the former employee who testified Thursday.
Reed said she had been subject to harassment when she worked at the Grand Canyon, and thought transferring from the Park Service to the Forest Service would help her escape the abuse. Instead, it was “jumping from the frying pan into the fire.”
Reed told the committee she was tripped and pushed during training sessions, spit on, cursed at and inappropriately touched while working at several different offices in the Forest Service. She was subject to sexually explicit comments and threats, and said she was fired for reporting the harassment.
She testified that it will take more than “merely a check-the-box process to make the agency appear as if it is addressing sexual harassment, gender harassment, bullying and retaliation.”
Christiansen said she values the criticisms she received at the hearing and will work to make the changes that have been requested, but they will take time. She vowed to work with the committee and the women who signed the letter to provide better support to victims of workplace harassment.
“It’s ‘shame on us’ if we don’t move the needle on how women and minorities are treated,” Christiansen said. “It’s our time to permanently upend the long-rooted behaviors and norms, and that’s what I’m committed to do.”