The CIA’s Epic Failure in Protecting Employees: Culture of Accountability Begins with Mandatory Workplace Harassment Training and Enforcing Consequences


You’ve probably seen the multiple stories and blogs that were published last week on the sad state of the workplace at the CIA. I read this post on the PBS Newshour site, noting that 15 CIA employees were found to have committed sexual, racial or other types of harassment last year. That includes a supervisor who was removed from the job after engaging in “bullying, hostile behavior,” as well as an operative who was transferred home from an overseas post for inappropriately touching female colleagues.

Of course, those are just the incidents we know about. According to the post I read, an anonymous CIA employee posted on the internal CIA network that much more harassment happens and goes unreported.

Now, before I go further, I should reveal that none of those 15 employees who were government employees (vs. contractors) were demoted or fired. It’s mind-boggling. Stories like this are beyond frustrating. It’s bad enough that this is an issue in the corporate world, where we know workplace harassment training is standard practice. But in the clandestine service, where people are putting their lives on the line for our nation’s security, can’t they treat each other with more respect? Or rather, can’t there be consequences for NOT treating each other with more respect?

Naturally, once the story broke the internet filled with outrage. Part of that outrage, which I share with CIA employees, is that the CIA is clearly not doing enough to prevent or punish misconduct. How can the agency claim to have a zero tolerance policy towards harassment and retaliation, and yet not fire or demote any one of those government employees?

How can the CIA claim to have a zero tolerance policy towards harassment and retaliation?

The post says that the agency “made available” a workforce message that CIA Director John Brennan gave in March reaffirming the agency’s zero-tolerance policy, saying, “Words or actions that harm a colleague and undermine his or her career are more than just unprofessional, painful and wrong — they are illegal and hurt us all.” I suppose this is akin to what we in corporate compliance call tone from the top. He went on to assure employees that he would not tolerate acts of retaliation against those who complained of harassment.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel all that reassured, and I’d bet most CIA employees don’t either. Simply saying you have a “zero tolerance” policy towards harassment won’t reassure anyone; actually enforcing the policy and enacting consequences for those who violate the policy is the way to inspire confidence.

Simply saying you have a “zero tolerance” policy towards harassment won’t reassure anyone! Share on Twitter

That message to employees, which CIA officials said was the first of its kind, said 15 out of 69 complaints in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, 2013, were found to be true. According to the post, in the interest of “transparency,” the officials shared summaries of four examples involving three unidentified CIA employees and a contractor:

  • A supervisor who engaged in bullying, hostile behavior and retaliatory management techniques was removed from the job, given a letter of reprimand, and ordered to undergo leadership and harassment training.
  • A male officer who sexually harassed female colleagues at an overseas post was sent back to the U.S. and given a letter of counseling and mandatory workplace harassment training.
  • An employee who used a racial slur and threatened a contractor was given a letter of reprimand.
  • A contractor who groped a woman was removed from his tour and “reviewed for possible termination.”

These consequences are nearly laughable. Wow, letters of reprimand… harsh. Workplace harassment training after the fact is not nearly as helpful as beforehand; it is much more effective as a preventative tool, although it can be used as a corrective tool.

CIA officials acknowledged that, in response to the memo, many employees complained that none of the government employees involved were fired or demoted. That’s hardly a surprise. How can employees believe in the tone from the top, that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated, when it clearly is? CIA officials actually said the idea “was to deter the behavior, not punish the offenders.” Wait, what… how do you think you deter behavior? Anyone who has raised a toddler knows that deterring behavior starts with enforcing your policies. When the policy is “we don’t allow our employees to be harassed” then those who harass get punished. Period.

CIA officials actually said the idea “was to deter the behavior, not punish the offenders.” Share on Twitter

I’ve written before about how I find harassment, particularly sexual harassment and discrimination to be frustrating because it’s so intuitive; we know we shouldn’t do it! Yet every day, this behavior happens all over the world, and it costs companies millions of dollars. Is it going to cost the CIA anything?

In the corporate realm we know the steps to take to create a safe and respectful work environment: create and enforce a set of policies, implement workplace harassment training, establish a tone from the top, and roll out ongoing awareness programs. I will grant that the CIA faces some unique challenges, as the post indicates, given that many of its employees work in dangerous locations and situations that are not at all like what we in the corporate world face each day. But in my mind, that doesn’t excuse not protecting your employees from harassment; if anything, it makes it even more urgent.

As most of the CIA’s business is conducted, understandably, in secret, there has been almost no public accountability for this type of misconduct, until now. I’d advocate mandatory workplace harassment training for every person, including Director Brennan, on an annual basis. The CIA should also clearly articulate and publicly post the zero tolerance harassment policy and the consequences for violating that policy. And there should be actual consequences – not just a token “slap on the wrist.” Every employee should read and attest to that policy annually.

Those are at least some first steps the CIA can take to start doing a better job of protecting its employees, who put their lives on the line protecting us every day. It’s the least they can do.

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