In the spring of 2019, at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) fielded a survey designed to estimate the annual prevalence of workplace harassment and discrimination at FEMA and to assess employee perceptions of leadership and workplace climate. To yield the most-meaningful and -useful data on the types of civil rights violations that FEMA employees experience, the survey assessed gender-based/sexual harassment, gender discrimination, racial/ethnic harassment, and racial/ethnic discrimination. Civil rights violation is an umbrella term that includes harassment and discrimination on the basis of membership in any protected class.
All 19,917 FEMA personnel were invited to participate, and 8,946 completed the survey (44.9-percent response rate). Responses were weighted to represent the FEMA population. The survey results (highlights of which are contained in this brief) reveal areas in need of improvement and will help guide FEMA leadership decisions about programming and policy responses.
Not All Civil Rights Violations Are Sexual in Nature
Media coverage sometimes creates the impression that harassment is typically sexual in nature—focusing on unwanted propositions or repeated sexual innuendos, for example. This was not true in the FEMA workforce. Instead, violations that were sexist in nature were more common—such as repeated, offensive comments that women should not be in a certain role.
Types of violations experienced by women and men
Type of violation
Sexual civil rights violations only
Both sexual and sexist civil rights violations
Sexist civil rights violations only
Ensure that prevention efforts address all types of problematic behaviors.
Risk Varies by Office
Rates of civil rights violations varied across offices. For example, women in Mission Support and the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) were less likely to be categorized as having experienced gender-based/sexual harassment than women in many other offices. Similarly, the estimated rate of racial/ethnic harassment was lower in Mission Support and the Office of the CFO than in some other offices.
Gender-Based/Sexual Harassment: Risk, by Organizational Structure
Office of the Administrator1
Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration
Office of Response and Recovery
Office of the CFO
1Excluding the Office of the CFO, which was large enough to describe separately.
2 Excluding the Federal Insurance and Mitigation Administration, which was large enough to describe separately.
Explore differences in culture and climate between offices that had low rates of civil rights violations and offices that had higher rates.
Reporting Decisions Suggest That Barriers Exist
Only one-third to one-half of FEMA employees who had experiences consistent with harassment or discrimination in the preceding year had reported the incident to a supervisor or manager or through another official channel. A similar proportion shared their experiences informally. But one-tenth to one-fifth told no one.
Did not tell anyone
Told only a friend, family member, or health care professional
Told a supervisor/manager or officially reported
The Top Three Barriers to Reporting
Employee "did not think anything would be done" about it
Employee wanted to "forget about it and move on"
Employee was afraid of being "labeled as a troublemaker"
Many common barriers to reporting could be alleviated by ensuring that leaders at all levels of the agency know what to do with reports and have the tools to take action. Supervisors should also be held accountable for how they handle reports and for managing concerns about retaliation.
Reduce barriers to reporting. To start, ensure that leaders have the knowledge and tools to respond appropriately to reports and will work to prevent retaliation.
Changing organizational culture and climate is no easy task. A comprehensive and holistic set of interventions that incentivize professional and respectful workplace behavior can help leaders ensure that proclivities toward negative behavior are suppressed in the FEMA work environment.
This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.
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Farris, Coreen, Carra S. Sims, Terry L. Schell, Miriam Matthews, Sierra Smucker, Samantha Cohen, and Owen Hall, Harassment and Discrimination in the FEMA Workplace: Topline Results from the Workplace Survey Support Study. Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center operated by the RAND Corporation, 2020. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RBA383-1.html.
Farris, Coreen, Carra S. Sims, Terry L. Schell, Miriam Matthews, Sierra Smucker, Samantha Cohen, and Owen Hall, Harassment and Discrimination in the FEMA Workplace: Topline Results from the Workplace Survey Support Study, Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center operated by the RAND Corporation, RB-A383-1, 2020. As of December 8, 2023: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RBA383-1.html