February 9, 2016

Author:  Bobbi K. Dominick

An illustrative investigation recently hit the news.  The January 2016 Washington Post headline reads:  “Female Park Service employees say they were harassed on Grand Canyon trips.”  The article details an extensive investigation undertaken about operations at National Parks along the Grand Canyon.  Many details were included in the report about the trips into the canyon and alleged harassment of female Parks employees.  The sad part of reading the 2016 investigative report (which is available online here https://www.doioig.gov/sites/doioig.gov/files/Misconduct_GrandCanyonRiverDistrict_Public.pdf)  is not that the investigation, which began in 2014, revealed misconduct.  The sad part is that the report acknowledges that there had been complaints about inappropriate sexual conduct for over a decade and complaints had been submitted to supervisors, but nothing was done to correct the overall pervasive atmosphere which allowed the behavior to persist.  The earliest behavior detailed in the complaint was an event in 2005, a decade before the complaint investigation was concluded and additional action taken.  The investigation concluded that there was a long term pattern of sexual harassment and hostile work environment created, and very little done to try to remedy the situation.  It took 13 women writing a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Interior in Washington to launch this comprehensive investigation and begin implementation of corrective measures that would eliminate this pervasive culture of “what happens on the river, stays on the river.”  After the investigation was completed, investigators had found not only the original 13 complainants who had witnessed inappropriate behavior, but an additional 22 witnesses were interviewed who also witnessed such behavior. 


The lesson for employers and their attorneys and HR professionals is that a complaint which may seem simple in its smaller context, and which you may think is fully resolved, could be part of a larger pattern of “culture” within an organization or subset of an organization.  In those circumstances, it is not enough to reprimand an employee for one individual act, it takes a culture change.  Here are some lessons: 

  • Train all first level supervisors often to make sure they are tracking complaints and dealing with them promptly and appropriately.  If the complaint may be indicative of a larger problem, or reveals other types of behavior that may be enhancing or encouraging inappropriate behavior, address the larger context.
  • If a single entity or employer receives more than one complaint about “atmosphere” or about one or a group of employees, make sure to look at the bigger picture of culture within the workgroup, and don’t be restrictive in the scope of any investigation.  If a pervasive atmosphere is found, extensive training of the entire workforce may be required to reinforce respectful workplace standards.
  • Do not take action against an employee who has previously complained about misconduct without thoroughly investigating the connection between the alleged misconduct and the fact that the employee was the one who complained about others.
  •  Make sure that if discipline is administered it is uniform and appropriate to the circumstances, without leniency for certain positions, or more senior level employees.  Behavior that is wrong should be disciplined; otherwise the message sent is that the behavior is okay.  If one employee is disciplined, but another is not, employees might receive the message that certain employees are favored and may continue inappropriate behavior.

    Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.