The Bureau of Indian Affairs steps up its harassment policy

Timeframes for responding to allegations and more show improvements from ‘zero tolerance’ rhetoric.


Following reports of high rates of sexual and racial harassment at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a new harassment policy is in place.
U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs

In recent years, the U.S. Department of the Interior has faced mounting criticism over its failure to address employee harassment in the workplace. The Bureau of Indian Affairs began a new, more rigorous policy in April 2018, but did not release it publicly. After submitting a Freedom of Information Act request and an appeal, however, High Country News received the new policy, published in full below.

The 14-page policy shows improvements in its definition of harassment, broadening the term to include “unwelcome conduct, verbal or physical, including intimidation, ridicule, insult, comments.” The goal, the policy states, is to “hold employees accountable at the earliest possible stage, before the conduct rises to the level of harassment within the meaning of anti-discriminatory law.” As a report released by House Democrats in January 2018 showed, the BIA and overall Interior policy lacked a clear condemnation of retaliation, as well as a clear definition of what constitutes harassment. 

The policy comes after a department-wide survey in 2017 that showed high rates of harassment regarding race, age, gender and more. Overall, 35% of DOI’s employees, or 21,357 people, reported being harassed in the previous 12 months. Rates were especially high within the Bureau of Indian Affairs, at 40%, Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians at 38%, and the National Park Service at 39%. The three agencies also ranked the highest for rates of sexual harassment.

That harassment reached to the highest levels within the department. In 2018, just six months into his tenure, Bureau of Indian Affairs Director Bryan Rice resigned amid allegations of abusive behavior, a High Country News investigation revealed. A few days before his resignation, the new harassment policy went into effect. But when High Country News requested a copy of the new policy, a Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson responded that HCN would need to file a Freedom of Information Act request. After nearly three months of no response, HCN filed an appeal. Two and half weeks later, the BIA sent the policy. 

“These policies are really specific in nature,” said Brandi Liberty, who works with tribal governments to address sexual harassment through Morning Star Consulting, and who reviewed the policy for HCN. “(They leave) little room for error with management and upper-level directors to deviate from ensuring victim safety and harasser accountability.” 

The report is clear about what constitutes harassment, though Liberty says it could be improved by offering resources for support services, such as counseling. Below are highlights from the new policy.

  1. It institutes time frames for responding to allegations.

The policy sets deadlines for supervisors, managers and human resources officers to meet when responding to allegations, notifying upper management, and beginning investigations. Managers have one business day after becoming “aware” of harassing conduct to notify their own supervisors or the alleged victim’s supervisors to report the harassment. Past investigations have shown that pervasive harassment tends to continue when managers do not take action after hearing of allegations. That was the case in an investigation into a BIA employee who sexually harassed employees and tribal members of the Colorado River Indian Tribes for two years, while BIA managers and HR officers knew but did not act.

Within three days of receiving an allegation, supervisors have to consult with the Office of Solicitor or Human Resources Offices to determine whether an investigation is needed. If so, the investigative process starts within two days. There is no deadline for the length of an investigation. 

  1. It creates an ombudsman position for the agency.

In June 2018, the policy notes, Acting Director of Bureau of Indian Affairs Darryl LaCounte announced the creation of an ombudsman to serve as a confidential resource for BIA employees navigating the reporting process. Ombudsman Brian Bloch is charged with providing the BIA with feedback on areas of concerns and “potential weaknesses in the system.” Bloch is also the ombudsman for seven other Interior Department agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Education and the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians. 

  1. If misconduct is found, the policy requires supervisors to propose disciplinary or corrective action.

In the BIA survey from 2017, just 1.8% of respondents who were harassed said that some official career action was taken against the harasser. The majority of the time, respondents had to continue working with their harasser. The most recent policy outlines corrective action, ranging from reprimands to suspensions to termination. It also includes that if employees are unsure about what conduct is allowed, they should receive training. 

Both Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Human Capital and Diversity Edward T. Keable have promised webinars and trainings to familiarize employees with the new policy.

To view the full policy, see below or click here.

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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