About 29% of employees at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) experienced a sex- or race/ethnicity-based civil rights violation in the past year, according to research undertaken by the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC), a federally funded research and development center operated by the RAND Corporation under contract with the Department of Homeland Security.
FEMA sought an independent, objective assessment of harassment and discrimination at the agency following a 2018 internal investigation into misconduct in its senior leadership ranks. HSOAC fielded a survey in April and May 2019. Of the 19,917 FEMA personnel invited to participate, 8,946, or 44.9%, responded. The results reveal areas in need of improvement and are meant to help guide policy responses by the agency.
“Changing organizational culture and climate is no easy task, but one vital component is measurement of the problem,” said Coreen Farris, lead author of the report and a senior behavioral scientist at nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND. “FEMA now has an empirical estimate of the prevalence of harassment and discrimination to serve as a yardstick against which to measure that change.”
Among the report’s recommendations are that FEMA explore differences in culture between offices with low and higher estimated rates of civil rights violations, reduce barriers to reporting, ensure leaders at all levels understand how best to handle harassment, and increase accountability and transparency in dealing with reports of misconduct.
“FEMA’s leaders are now equipped with information about individual and organizational behavior at multiple levels, as well as workforce beliefs about reporting behavior,” said co-author Carra Sims, a senior behavioral and social scientist at RAND. “That is information with which they could promote change.”
The investigation that motivated this research was focused on sexual harassment—which the survey found 20% percent of FEMA staff overall had experienced. Such harassment can be broken into two types. One is a sexual civil rights violation—hostile-work-environment sexual harassment and/or quid-pro-quo sexual harassment—reported by 12% percent of women and 4.4% of men at FEMA. The other, more common type is a sexist civil rights violation—gender-based harassment and/or gender discrimination—reported by 22.8% of women and 12% percent of men. An example of a sexist violation would be repeated, offensive comments that women should not be in a certain role.
The survey also assessed harassment and discrimination based on race or ethnicity. About 18.4% of FEMA employees overall—28.5% of those with two or more races, 23.1% of Black respondents, 20.9% of Asian respondents, 18.5% of Hispanic respondents and 15.9% of white respondents—experienced racial/ethnic civil rights violations, such as when colleagues displayed materials that threaten or insult a racial/ethnic group or repeatedly told jokes derogatory of a particular racial/ethnic group.
Only a third to half of FEMA employees who experienced any kind of harassment or discrimination reported the incident to a supervisor or through another official channel. A similar proportion shared their experiences informally. But about 21% told no one.
While a majority of FEMA employees said leaders would respond appropriately to harassing behaviors, 24% of women perceived leadership behaviors as neutral or actively harmful. And 28% of Black respondents had similar opinions about how their supervisors would handle racial/ethnic harassment.
Rates of civil rights violations varied widely across FEMA locations. For example, women in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (4.4%) were far less likely to report gender-based/sexual harassment than women in the regional offices (26.2%).
It is difficult to put FEMA’s results into context because it is rare for government or private-sector organizations to measure—and disclose—the prevalence of civil rights violations in their workforce.
The FEMA survey provides a baseline of workplace harassment and discrimination. Re-fielding the survey every two or four years would allow FEMA leadership to track the prevalence of civil rights violations in the workforce over time and provide an objective measure of the effectiveness of any policy changes and prevention efforts that are enacted.
Other authors of the report, “Harassment and Discrimination on the Basis of Gender and Race/Ethnicity in the Federal Emergency Management Agency Workforce,” are Terry L. Schell, Miriam Matthews, Sierra Smucker, Samantha Cohen, and Owen Hall.
The research was sponsored by FEMA’s Office of Equal Rights.