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The Park Service buried its own study on harassment

The agency promised transparency and action. Instead, it kept the audit confidential.

Despite knowing for years about widespread harassment across the agency and promising to take action, the National Park Service buried an internal study that shed new light on the problem, High Country News has confirmed.

The Voices Tour Report, which was compiled in 2018, goes further than any past NPS report in describing how women, LGBTQ+ and Black, Indigenous and people of color are treated in the workplace and left unprotected by agency leadership. In early November, an employee leaked the report to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which tipped HCN off.

 

The Park Service hired Fran Sepler of Sepler & Associates, a human resources consultant nationally recognized in workplace investigations, to do the report. The tour — which mostly occurred between December 2017 to April 2018 — included 53 in-person sessions, 27 web sessions and more than 200 submissions to an anonymous online portal. At least 1,249 voices “were heard,” the report states. All employees were invited to participate, according to emails PEER obtained.

High-level agency officials, including national and regional directors, were given copies of the report and debriefed at a meeting after it was completed, according to a source familiar with the report. But the findings were never released to the public or shared widely with Park Service employees.

And so far, it doesn’t appear that the agency has done anything significant to address it, according to current and former employees and another individual with knowledge of the report.


The Park Service conducted an extensive internal survey but still, more than two years after the report was compiled, results have yet to be released. High Country News obtained the report and is also making available supplement documents as well as a response from NPS.
See them all here, or at the following link: 
https://www.documentcloud.org/projects/park-service-harassment_voices-tour-cover-up-205639/ 

Employee responses in the “storybook” section of the NPS Voices Report.

Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, the agency’s chief spokesperson, told HCN that officials received the full report in late 2019 and “had begun initial internal rollout” and were “preparing to distribute it to the full workforce” when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

“We recognize our delay in sharing the report could have the unintentional consequence of impacting our efforts to build confidence and trust with employees,” Anzelmo-Sarles said. “One of the most important things we can do is be transparent about what is occurring within the workforce and help break down barriers that dissuade or prevent people from coming forward when they are subject to or witness inappropriate behavior.” 

The Park Service said it has implemented programs for bystander intervention, anti-harassment, and employee health and wellness, in addition to reprioritizing funding and improving tracking systems for harassment complaints. The agency hired a consultant in October to launch a “Workforce Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Strategy,” and has begun working on a plan to improve work environments.

Alexandra Rothermel, a National Park Service employee for eight years, was sexually assaulted by a male employee at Death Valley National Park. Despite years of acknowledging widespread harassment across the agency, the NPS buried an internal study on the problem.

 

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A December 2016 High Country News investigation found that, for decades, the National Park Service has failed to protect its workers from sexual misconduct. In 2000, the agency surveyed employees about gender discrimination in its parks, but that report, as HCN reported, was never distributed and no meaningful action was taken. Conversations with more than 50 people during HCN’s yearlong investigation revealed that the agency has repeatedly failed employees — especially women — at every stage of the reporting and investigation process. Its internal culture was self-reinforcing: A culture of machismo with a history of retaliation against employees who spoke out meant that few people were willing to do so.

After HCN’s exposé was published, the Park Service vowed to address the problem. A 2017 survey by the agency revealed that nearly 40% of employees experienced some form of harassment over a 12-month period. In response, the Park Service hired outside experts to interview employees and create the Voices report based on their findings. An email from then-acting Deputy Director Michael Reynolds told employees that the tour was a “key component of our action plan,” and that leadership would provide “regular updates and resources.”

Several current and former employees told HCN recently that they never heard anything about the report or its findings. Some were discouraged, because at the time officials appeared to be taking the issue seriously.

“This process felt different than other initiatives like this in the past,” an employee with knowledge of the report said. “People know these sessions happened. They were there. They shared their painful stories. The fact the report has never seen the light of day is disrespectful. It damages morale and makes the whole process feel like a sham.”

During the tour, hundreds of employees voiced concerns about workplace harassment and retaliation, repeatedly describing a “good old boy network” that promoted or shuffled poor leaders or bad actors to other parks. Many said they felt unsafe — particularly in rural parks —citing racism, sexism and discrimination against those with disabilities and LGBTQ+ employees. They outlined “significant concern for poor treatment of seasonal employees,” who are especially vulnerable to harassment and retaliation. 

 “People know these sessions happened. They were there. They shared their painful stories. The fact the report has never seen the light of day is disrespectful. It damages morale and makes the whole process feel like a sham.”

The report also highlighted broader cultural problems: Consistently, respondents stressed “the need to move away from a paramilitary culture” that has contributed to establishing “unfettered dominance” and is a barrier to diversifying the workforce.

Alexandra Rothermel, who worked for the Park Service for eight years, was featured in HCN’s 2016 investigation, speaking anonymously due to fear of reprisal for her account of being sexually assaulted by a male employee at Death Valley National Park. Her case was swept under the rug by supervisors, and she has since transferred to another Interior Department agency. Rothermel told HCN she is ready to speak out now. She said she believes she participated in a facilitated session for the Voices Tour in 2018, but never heard anything else about it — which was shocking to her, because she was paying such close attention to how the agency handled harassment.

“Understandably, every workforce is going to have a lot of problems, but not a lot of other work environments are so intertwined with our lives as the Park Service is, except for the military,” she said. “That amplifies it and makes things worse.” 

When she left the agency, she said, it felt like leaving a cult.

Participants in the 2018 Voices Tour stressed “the need to move away from a paramilitary culture” that contributes to establishing “unfettered dominance.” When Alexandra Rothermel left the agency, she said, “it felt like leaving a cult.”

Respondents also stated that people of color had little support, and supervisors did not intervene when racist comments were heard. “Tokenism is a concern,” the report stated, and people of color are held to “higher standards.” It also noted a lack of understanding and compliance with ADA standards and reports of harassment from some employees with disabilities.

Employees interviewed for the report said there is no accountability or consequences for this behavior. “You could kill someone here and keep your job,” one anonymously wrote. The report noted that there was “nearly universal agreement that HR systems are not working.”

The Park Service released an updated policy in 2017 and 2018 stating that it would “not tolerate offensive sexual or non-sexual harassing behavior,” but respondents said that the new policy had “no teeth.”

The agency’s own high-level officials considered the report’s findings critical: An email from then-associate director of workforce and inclusion Nhien Tony Nguyen from February 2018 said that it would “serve as a cornerstone in our efforts to change the culture that has allowed harassment to persist.”

In response to HCN’s request for comment, spokesperson Anzelmo-Sarles said: “We continue to encourage people to talk openly and honestly about workplace concerns and NPS leadership remains committed to being open and transparent with employees about these issues.” See the full agency repsonse here and a supplemental document they provided here

“The agency’s responses to the persistent stream of information that there are deep problems are adequate in some respects, but policies, procedures and compliance-oriented training is hardly enough,” said an individual with knowledge of the report, who asked to remain anonymous.

“No doubt the report was put in front of people who had capacity to do something about it.”

There is “no doubt the report was put in front of people who had capacity to do something about it,” they added. “There is a dedicated group of career professionals in NPS that understand what needs to be done — they have the skill, capacity, and heart — but they rely on leadership to empower them to address this, and for some reason that has stalled.” 

The report outlined suggestions from employees on how to improve the culture and systems, including human resources support, high-quality training from outside the agency, alternative ways to deal with smaller issues while avoiding cumbersome bureaucratic processes, and better protection for employees — especially those in rural areas.

PEER sent a letter Monday to Charles F. “Chuck” Sams, the Biden’s administration’s nominee for Park Service director, about the report and the agency’s toxic culture. “The Park Service does not have time for another series of listening sessions,” Chandra Rosenthal, director of Rocky Mountain PEER, told HCN. (Full disclosure: Rosenthal is a sibling of HCN’s managing digital editor.) “The frustration and disappointment among the employees that these issues haven’t been addressed, is palpable. It is time to begin the difficult work of undoing the knots that are holding back the agency.”

One employee who asked to remain anonymous described the problem succinctly, telling HCN, “The people who cause the harm are often the ones asked to put the solutions in effect.”

The Voices Tour findings were never released to the public or shared widely with Park Service employees.

Lyndsey Gilpin conducted HCN’s 2016 investigation into harassment at the Park Service. She  is a former HCN fellow and the founder of Southerly, a magazine on ecology, justice and culture in the American South. Follow her on Twitter @lyndseygilpin.

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