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January 27, 2017
NIH Revamps Its Sexual Harassment Policy

Recent headlines remind us of a distressing issue that’s been around for decades, and which plenty of professionals still grapple with today. Sexual harassment in the workplace—whether physical, verbal or nonverbal—is demeaning and illegal. NIH is on the cusp of implementing a multi-phase plan to prevent and address harassment and encourages employees to share ideas to help shape the policy.

“One of the most essential things for a successful harassment prevention program is making sure employees know where to go to get assistance if they observe inappropriate behavior or if they experience it themselves,” said Debra Chew, director of NIH’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), which is spearheading the initiative.

The updated policies will cover sexual and other forms of harassment such as race, religion, disability, bullying and other forms of discrimination. Victims and observers of workplace harassment will have multiple avenues to seek assistance, including a confidential hotline. Chew said, “If you feel you’re being subjected to harassment on any one of the legally protected bases, then this harassment prevention program will protect you.”

Debra Chew
Debra Chew

EDI has drafted an official policy and a handbook, both currently under review by a planning committee consisting of executive officers, NIH scientific directors and representatives from OHR, including its Civil Program, NIMHD and the NIH Office of the Ombudsman.

The anti-harassment plan will feature a new system to alert investigators quickly. When there’s a complaint, “We have an obligation to swiftly look into the matter through an administrative inquiry,” said Chew. “Then, if we find there’s been inappropriate, illegal behavior, we’ll be held to the standard of correcting and curing the harassment behavior so it doesn’t recur or continue, because each day that someone is being victimized is a horrific day for that individual.”

EDI is also planning to launch an online harassment prevention training tool soon. This mandatory training will include video vignettes of simulated situations in labs and offices. As is the case with annual online ethics and IT security training, failure to complete it could result in suspended email accounts.

Any type of harassment can induce anxiety, depression, shame and other debilitating psychological, even physical, effects as well as drain worker morale and productivity. “Workplace harassment, we know, can serve to disengage employees, can create office churn that serves as a distraction; it really takes people off the mission and undermines the success of the organization,” said Chew.

Once EDI finalizes the policies and cost estimates for contracts, OHR will circulate a workplace harassment survey. The survey offers a chance for staff to voice their concerns and ideas so NIH as a community can help fine-tune the prevention program and provide insights into the evolving needs of harassment victims.

“Whenever you communicate about workplace harassment, it brings up really bad memories for people who have been victimized,” said Chew. “So we want to make sure we have a supportive system before we start ramping up the dialogue and communication around this survey.”

Currently, if an NIH employee files a harassment complaint, OHR provides guidance to supervisors who then address the issue. “The problem with not having a very detailed handbook or policy is that people don’t know exactly where to go right now and that’s the opportunity we saw to clarify all of that,” said Chew.

With the new plan, a review committee will oversee the response efforts and recommend interventions to the IC, including disciplinary actions for the harasser. The IC would be accountable to NIH leadership and would have to justify any failure to implement these recommendations. Chew said, “I do think that’s symbolic of [NIH principal deputy director] Dr. [Lawrence] Tabak’s and [NIH director] Dr. [Francis] Collins’s commitment to this effort.”

At the same time, EDI recognizes that large committees with senior officials might seem intimidating to victims and have the unintended consequence of preventing victims or witnesses from coming forward. It’s a delicate balance, noted Chew, who has been consulting with employee and labor relations officials. “We need to be thoughtful about the size of the committee, the participants and how to maintain the confidentiality of victims.”

Chew knows firsthand how difficult it can be to report harassment. “I’ve personally experienced sexual harassment in my career,” she said. Early in her law career in Atlanta, she experienced daily abuse but was afraid to come forward. In hindsight, she wished she had.

“I know how isolating it can make you feel, as a person, as a professional, how scary it can be, how stressful,” Chew said. “I respect victims; I respect that people navigate these situations differently. We want to provide a place for them, that if they do want to come forward, they can.”

NIH senior leadership is deeply involved in every aspect of the program and Chew said all components exceed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s minimum requirements. Perhaps, she said, NIH’s anti-harassment program will serve as a model for other agencies.

NIH’ers need not wait until the full program is finalized to come forward with a complaint or idea. If you believe you’ve been subject to discrimination or harassment, contact EDI.

“We take workplace harassment seriously. One person on this campus who experiences it is too many,” said Chew. “We want to have a very strong program in place to give people a sense of comfort and we need everybody’s assistance to get this right.”

Share Your Thoughts

Victims of sexual or other workplace harassment often fear coming forward. They worry about the consequences and the effects on their career and reputation. As NIH hones its anti-harassment policy, EDI wants to hear from harassment victims.

“I want to ask victims: if there was one thing about a program at NIH that would’ve helped you or made you feel strong to be able to come forward and report an incident of workplace harassment, what would that be?” asked EDI Director Debra Chew.

NIH’ers can share their personal experiences or suggestions related to workplace harassment by contacting EDI via this confidential email: edi.guidance@nih.gov.

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