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To Stop Harassment, Leaders Must Lead
News briefing by Sheila Widnall, secretary of the Air Force, and Edwin Dorn, undersecretary of defense for personnel , Pentagon, Friday, May 12, 1995

Widnall. Mr. Dorn and I are very pleased to report that we've completed our review of the military discrimination complaint system, and we've presented our report to Dr. [Secretary of Defense William J.] Perry.

The task force that we co-chaired was composed of DoD and service representatives. Indeed, I believe it represents the most intensive review of the military's EO [equal opportunity] system that has ever been undertaken. We heard from individual services, from outside experts and from various DoD advisory groups.

During the course of our meetings, the services made numerous changes to their systems so that it's fair to say that many of our recommendations have already been adopted.

You know of Dr. Perry's deep commitment to equal opportunity in the military. The recommendations in our report will ensure that DoD remains a leader in guaranteeing fair treatment to our servicemen and women. The tough new guidelines we've established will help all the services deal more effectively with harassment and discrimination.

From the very beginning, we realized that although general principles could be shared across the services, the simple substitute of one service's system for another would not work. In fact, we refused to construct and impose one ideal system on all the services because there is no ideal system.

In the course of our deliberations, we asked fundamental questions about what are the appropriate goals for a successful EO system within the military services. We identified two essential goals. The first is enhanced unit effectiveness.

Because of the dangerous nature of their jobs, military units must function as a team, unified by special bonds of trust and mutual respect. Discrimination and harassment weaken those bonds and create distrust. To ensure our readiness, commanders must deal effectively with such offenses.

Just as important is fairness to individuals. The military team succeeds only when all members are accepted as equals, so our EO programs must be based on a goal of individual opportunity and fairness.

We identified five principles upon which a successful military EO program must be based to fulfill these goals. These provide the framework for our recommendations. First, commanders' personal commitment to EO must be visible and unequivocal since commanders set the standards for professional conduct, create the climate of mutual respect, evaluate their people and make recommendations for promotion. They should be responsible and accountable for managing the discrimination complaint system.

Second, the Defense Department must establish goals, principles and standards of performance. However, since the individual services differ in mission and organization, equal opportunity programs in the individual military services will be effective only if they are incorporated into the service professional military education programs, investigatory structures and procedures, disciplinary structures and command responsibility.

Third, we need clear, concise written policies to ensure that our servicemen and women know that discrimination and harassment are forbidden, how to recognize these offenses, how to file complaints and how the rights of all involved will be protected.

Fourth, EO and human relations training should continue throughout a military member's career. Training for leaders and commanders should stress their personal involvement and accountability.

Finally, complaint systems should be prompt, thorough and fair; allow for informal resolution; include support services; prevent reprisals; and provide appropriate sanctions.

Now Mr. Dorn will cover some of our specific recommendations.

Dorn. Secretary Widnall began by talking about why we were in this -- the goals for an effective equal opportunity system. And then she talked about the five principles that we apply. Those principles are designed to answer the question: What kinds of criteria must an effective program satisfy? It's my task now to tell you where we came out with respect to some 48 recommendations for fostering or improving our equal opportunity effort, and particularly improving the way we handle discrimination and sexual harassment complaints. ...

I'm simply going to offer a sample of about eight of these of the 48, and those eight will give you a sense of the breadth or the range of issues we covered during this exercise. As I said, some of these principles or recommendations are entirely new, some simply reiterate existing practice.

The first recommendation is that we are going to maintain service-specific standards. As Secretary Widnall mentioned, our goal or our principle for this was we wanted standards, but we did not think it desirable or feasible to standardize across the services. There are a variety of reasons for that, but one is simply the recognition that the services operate in very different ways.

The Army and the Air Force operate from fixed bases, so they can afford to have relatively robust equal opportunity complaint structures. The Navy operates from ships. We simply can't afford to assign somebody to do equal opportunity full time on an attack submarine or a cruiser. So we had to allow for these operational differences across the services.

Another age-old principle which we want to reiterate is the accountability of leaders. We want our commanders, our senior officials, to make equal opportunity, and especially to make complaints about discrimination and harassment, their personal business.

We have some specific ideas about how to do that, so I'll return to this idea of accountability a bit later.

A third recommendation has to do with adopting standard definitions for key terms. As we met the members of the task force from the services, from OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense], what we discovered was that the services had slightly different definitions of key terms such as discrimination and harassment and reprisals.

We think it's very important that everybody operates from the same sheet of music. Among other things, only if we are using terms in the same way can we develop reliable data on what's happening in the force with respect to discrimination and harassment trends.

A fourth recommendation had to do with establishing, and most importantly, adhering to time lines. Let me share a story with you about that. ADM [Jeremy M.] Boorda, the chief of naval operations, came into our task force meeting one day and he said he'd become concerned about learning about a case in the Navy that had dragged on for many, many months, and he simply announced what he was going to do. He was sending out an order saying, "Look, I want these things processed within a given amount of time, and if they're not processed within that time, I want a report directly from the commander responsible explaining why there's been a delay." He assured us, and I think you all understand, that the prospect of having to explain a delay to the chief of naval operations is a very strong incentive for getting things done in timely fashion. ...

[The fifth recommendation:] Providing feedback to complainants and indeed to everybody in the system. Complaints are hard on the individuals who file them, on the respondents, they're hard on a unit. It's very important that people be apprised during the few weeks or few months that a complaint is in process, where they are. It's not sufficient that someone simply file a complaint and learn three or four months later what's happened to it. So we want and are recommending systems by which the services provide periodic feedback to complainants and others involved in these complaints.

Establishing reprisal prevention programs was very important to us because reprisal, the threat of retaliation, is one of the most insidious aspects of dealing with discrimination and harassment. We feel very strongly that nobody should feel intimidated about filing a complaint, and we feel very strongly that no one should be able to get away with retaliation or reprisal.

Next, adopting standards for investigation. We found differences across the services with respect to the kind of training that was given to investigators and with respect to the quality of evidence that was being developed in these complaints. We want to make sure that investigators know what evidence to look for, how to find it and how to weigh it. We're recommending that the services adopt some standards suggested by the DoD inspector general in a recent report.

Finally, we want to establish clear appeals procedures, and our specific recommendation has to do with a timeline for appeals and a final point of appeal at the level of the service secretary.

All of these recommendations cover military personnel only, not civilians, but they cover military personnel in the active as well as in the reserve components, in joint organizations and in the defense agencies. So let me return to this idea of accountability and explain how one of these principles is being teased-out in terms of specific recommendations.

The first thing you need to do if you want people to be accountable is to tell them that they're accountable and teach them what their roles and responsibilities are. That is one of our recommendations. We want them to post statements indicating their commitment, and we want those statements at all levels of the chain of command, from the level of the chief of staff and the service secretary down to the company or wing command.

Third, we think it's important that commanders conduct periodic climate assessments. One of the problems we found is that sometimes commanders are not quite aware of what's going on in their organizations, particularly as regards the subtler forms of racial or sexual tensions that can emerge over time. We think it important that commanders keep on top of that by conducting periodic EO climate assessments.

Another way, of course, to ensure accountability is to tell commanders that their commitment to equal opportunity and deviations from that commitment will be noted in their performance evaluations.

Finally, we want to ensure that these timelines are met. It is, as I suggested earlier, very difficult sometimes to file complaints because there are tensions -- one is not quite certain what's going to happen. It's important that there be a date certain for getting these things resolved.

As Secretary Widnall mentioned, we have two concerns here. One, of course, is the welfare of the individual and the opportunities afforded the individual. Also, we are very concerned about the effectiveness of the unit and doing all that we can to ensure that any tensions, any resentments, any suspicions that exist in a unit as a result of allegations of harassment or discrimination are dealt with promptly, fairly, certainly.

The key to much of this, I'll say in conclusion, is to make the chain of command work for service members and against discrimination and against sexual harassment.

With that, Secretary Widnall and I will take your questions.

Q. How many of the 48 recommendations are actually new? You've outlined eight of them, half of which are new. How many of the 48 are new?

Dorn. At the OSD level, most of them are new. That is, most of these recommendations have not previously been the subject of a DoD policy directive or requirement. I should say in fairness that most of these ideas were in place in one of the services or in some of the agencies, so a lot of these recommendations are not new to the services.

Individual recommendations may not be new to individual services, but the sum will be new, and most of them are new at OSD levels. As Secretary Widnall mentioned in her briefing as well, as we've gone through this process, the services have been learning from one another and adapting the systems all along, so a large number of these recommendations are already being acted on.

Q. So this is kind of a bookkeeping exercise, kind of tying everything up that you've been doing over the last couple of years, or does it have a common manual?

Widnall. Well, I think I'd like to raise it to a higher plane than a bookkeeping exercise. I think it was an extremely productive discussion across the services and with DoD. I really believe in setting out our goals and our principles and constructing a system that tracks along with those principles. We really feel that we have given the services a kind of a framework for reviewing and further developing their EO systems to meet the kind of standards that Mr. Dorn spoke about.

Q. I'm sure that in coming up with these recommendations you got some sense of just how bad discrimination, and particularly sexual harassment, remain in the military. Give us a sense of how pervasive that is.

Dorn.

... I think our general conclusions are that most of the time we deal with these problems pretty effectively. The basic policies are in place in many instances -- they've been in place for years. Most of the components have fairly well established procedures. But as we were going through this process, we found a number of instances in which things went wrong, in which complaints were not taken seriously, in which they were not investigated properly, in which they were not handled in timely fashion, in which reprisal occurred. There were enough of these deviations that we felt it important to issue these recommendations.

I should say that these 48 recommendations represent refinement of a system. They do not represent fundamental reform in a system because we found the system to be fundamentally healthy. There are enough problems, however, and enough instances of deviation that we needed to take these 48 actions.

Q. On the issue of accountability, you say that they will give the commitment to note EO records in evaluations. But ... if an officer is found to have mishandled a complaint or in some way not fulfilled your general goals, then what? Have you increased anything real about how they are evaluated or promoted or anything like that, specifically?

Widnall. Yes. I believe that the promotion system in the military is so highly competitive that with the wealth of extraordinarily outstanding candidates that we do have, I think a sense that someone is not an effective leader, because that really is what it boils down to: Someone who does not take these issues seriously, does not manage these issues properly within their units, I think, would be viewed by the whole service as not an effective leader. So in an age where we have outstanding, effective leaders to choose from, I'm sure that these suggestions will have a very serious consequence. ...

 

 

Q. You said the system's working pretty well. Yesterday we had this Minneapolis report that showed just astronomical levels of sexual harassment. Twenty-five percent of the women said they'd been the subject of attempted rape.

Have you seen that study now? Yesterday all we heard about was a reaction to the news reports of the study. Have you seen that study? And how do you account for those numbers?

Dorn. I've seen the study, I haven't had an opportunity to digest it. Let me make a few points about the general issue.

First, we take this issue very seriously. Sexual harassment is illegal, it's repugnant, it undermines military effectiveness. The secretary has said he will not tolerate it, and we are putting in place a series of mechanisms to prevent it or to deal with it when it occurs.

Second, however, with respect to that specific study, I should point out that the survey which was reported on was a survey of 333 women who had been treated at a VA hospital. What that means is that it was, one, a very small sample, and second, a very selective survey ... -- people who appear at VA hospitals for treatment are eligible for that treatment because they have suffered a service-connected illness or injury.

... One of the authors of that survey was quoted in a report today as saying she ... , because of the special nature of that audience, did not believe those findings could be generalized to a larger population of women who have been in the military.

Further, I should mention, ... we've done some surveys on this matter. Our numbers are lower, considerably, than the numbers in the survey reported yesterday. However, rather than arguing about numbers or the validity or generalizability of the survey, I'd rather just emphasize that whether we're talking about 10 percent of women or 50 percent or 90 percent of women experiencing this, we take it very seriously. We're determined to stop it.

Q. The last Pentagon survey was in 1988, I believe. Are there any plans for a follow-up?

Dorn. There is, in fact, a survey of sexual harassment in the field right now. We expect to have preliminary results of that survey sometime later this spring or early summer. That survey is done in a way -- I believe it's a survey of about 90,000 people -- it's done in three parts, because we want to compare the 1995 results with the 1988 results.

But also remember that over the past few years, our sense of what sexual harassment means has changed a little bit. So there are now new sets of questions that have been developed. Then we have another part of the survey that asks these new sets of questions.

Yes, there's a new survey in the field. We hope to get the results in a few months.

Q. You've retained specific systems for each service or let each service protect its own system. As long as you do that, don't you have a situation where conduct that is judged harassing or discriminatory in one service will not be judged that way in another service? If that's the situation, don't you have a system that people are not going to have complete faith in?

Widnall. ... First of all, that is one of the reasons why ... one of our recommendations is to make a standard set of definitions. We are in the process of issuing a DoD directive which will become DoD policy, which all the service systems will track. Of course, there are Supreme Court decisions in other legal frameworks that I think make it pretty clear what the definition of sexual harassment is. So I think we've come a long way in understanding, and I would not expect that any of the services would have very different views of what this constitutes. ...

 

Q. This report was to have been released last November. Why has it taken so long for it to come to fruition?

Widnall. I wouldn't read too much into that. Both Mr. Dorn and I have other things to do. We met really intensively over the summer, and as we got into the final stages of the writing, I believe that it was just sort of crystallizing as to what the major thrust of the report was.

Beyond that, I have, obviously, a personal goal of putting together a very good report. So I had a fairly high set of standards about what a document should consist of. The fact of the matter is, we just worked very hard on it.

Q. What difference did you find in individual services in the way they handle sexual harassment complaints? Can you give us an example?

Widnall. I wouldn't say they were enormously different. Mr. Dorn may want to amplify this, but certainly all the systems have investigatory bodies: They have IG systems; they have the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, which, of course, they all use to deal with the more serious examples. They all have military education. So I personally did not find them very different.

I did find good ideas in different services that were shared across the services. So I didn't find them enormously different. I found the structures very similar. ...

Dorn. I agree with Secretary Widnall. I don't think it's possible for us to look across the wide range of characteristics we were concerned about and say that one service did all of those things better than another. Each had some characteristics that were worth borrowing from. And as Secretary Widnall mentioned, one of the things that happened during this process is that the services were borrowing one another's good ideas.

Q. There was some testimony within the last year before Congress from four or five women who detailed rather extensive harassment and also claimed that they were intimidated and harassed after they filed the complaints, and that their complaints had languished on somebody's desk for a long time. Will these new guidelines go back and look at their complaints, or is this for new complaints from this day forward?

Dorn. We looked at those instances and a number of others, and those informed the way we looked at the judgments we made. For example, if we look through a list of cases, one of the cases you alluded to was grounded in a hostile environment. That is, there were sexual innuendoes flying around the unit. The commander, apparently, was not attentive to it or did not feel obliged to correct it.

One of our recommendations addresses that question, or a couple of our recommendations address that question. They say, look, you've got to be attentive to the climate -- offers a tool, a climate assessment, that allows a commander to understand what's going on. [It] also emphasizes to that commander that he or she is accountable for altering that environment if it's found to be lacking.

Another instance we found that the chain of command simply did not respond properly in a racial discrimination case. Again, our recommendations talk about ensuring the chain of command is responsible and evaluating people according to their responsiveness. We've already talked about how we're dealing with the problem of excessive delays, which was one of the problems testified to in the House hearing last year, and we found that in several instances.

And we also have dealt in the section on reprisals, have dealt with the problem of people whose rights have been violated during this process. So yes, we have learned a lot from those and a lot of other case studies.

Q. Can you tell me exactly what a reprisal prevention program would be and exactly what you mean by periodic EO climate assessments?

Dorn. Let me take the second question and give Secretary Widnall an opportunity to think about the first question.

The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute [Patrick Air Force Base, Fla.] has developed a series of tools that allow commanders to understand what's going on in their units with respect to racial tension or perceptions of sexual harassment. ... Commanders in the past have had this at their disposal. Some organizations have used it extensively, some have not.

` One of the new things about our report is we are strongly recommending that commanders routinely use these things. What do I mean by periodically? Probably every time there's a change of command at a major unit. That would mean every couple of years.

Q. How do you assess the climate? How would you recommend that commanders assess the climate in their ...

Dorn. Surveys, basically. You talk to people. Find out. ... There's a paper form that people fill out that indicates whether or not they feel, for one thing, commanders care about them, whether they feel commanders are responsive to complaints of discrimination and harassment. It's the soldiers' or sailors' or Marines' or airmen's perception of the climate that you're trying to capture.

Widnall. OK. Let me say just a little bit about reprisal. First of all, reprisal is a complex topic, and it comes in many forms. But reprisal or prohibition against reprisal is embodied in legislation. That legislation specifically talks about adverse personnel actions taken against individuals as a result of their filing, so they're whistleblower statutes, they're EO guidelines and rules and regulations, so within the IG system. And of course all service policies prohibit reprisal. So that's kind of one side of reprisal.

For me, of equal importance is the whole question of the climate in the unit when, for example, a complaint is filed. Does that poison the climate in the unit? Do people begin to take sides? Is there the kind of retaliation, cartoons put on bulletin boards and, in general, efforts made to make that individual, or perhaps the other individual, feel unwelcome, not part of the unit.

I believe the report speaks directly to that in terms of, we view that as a leadership opportunity for a squadron commander, a group commander, a wing commander, and the sooner the better. When you have an incident occur in a unit, ... the commander should call the unit together, have a frank and open discussion to ensure that this whole question of the effect on the unit doesn't spin out of control and that people sort of behave properly until the issue is resolved.

I believe that those kinds of issues can be embedded in courses for commanders. That's an important part of what we're talking about when we talk about education for command.

Q. Did any one service come out to be worse in the field of sexual harassment or the way they dealt with it or how timely they were in dealing with it?

Widnall. No, I don't believe so. The sense I had is of really substantial commitment to these issues. After all, these are people issues, and the fundamental responsibility of a commander is to take care of his people or her people. We mean it when we say that our fundamental goal is unit effectiveness. I think it's absolutely true that you cannot have an effective unit without a good climate within the unit. That means that all the people work well together. I found that attitude was widely shared across the services, that there's a deep commitment to it.

We all understand that individual cases spin out of control and create an enormous problem for everybody involved, so I believe the commitment in the service is very deep to deal effectively with this issue.

 

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