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Culture of sexual harassment alleged in government agency

Did the former personnel chief of a federal agency treat his office as like a private hunting ground for women? Did he create a culture that treated women as mere objects — many hired on solely because they were viewed as attractive possible partners for the personnel chief and his friends?

That’s the allegations against a former official with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The official recently resigned after an internal investigation into the agency’s sexual harassment problem.

According to a report on the situation, the personnel chief who oversaw hiring decisions for the agency since 2011 instituted a culture where sexual harassment was the norm. He doled out jobs to college friends and fraternity brothers as favors and then gave jobs to attractive women that he met through dating sites and in bars.

Promotions were based more on a candidate’s personal relationship with him (or one of his friends) than they were on actual merit. In addition, the former personnel chief would arrange transfers for women solely on the basis of who wanted to date them. Women were moved around regional offices and departments as if they were playthings.

Over the years, the situation became so toxic that many qualified employees left because they were unwilling to be associated with the situation or unwilling to tolerate the obvious shenanigans happening under the chief’s leadership.

Given the widespread problem in the agency, it’s probably not surprising that the chief is also accused of “quid pro quo” sexual harassment. He had at least two affairs with subordinate employees. He eventually threatened one woman’s job and denied her promotion when she broke off their relationship. To keep another romantic interest from moving on, the chief created a whole new job for her — even though she wasn’t qualified for the role.

A recent study indicates that sexual harassment is still common in federal agencies. It affects one out of every five women at some point and almost one out of every 10 men. When the harassment is condoned — or started — by the officials at the top, it becomes an inescapable part of an office’s culture.

The only way to combat sexual harassment is to expose it and make it costly. That often requires taking a legal stand to protect your rights and demand accountability.