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Research Questions

  1. How prevalent are harassment and discrimination at FEMA?
  2. What form do they take?

Following the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA's) 2018 internal investigation into sexual harassment and misconduct in its senior leadership ranks, FEMA leaders chose to openly discuss the problems and the need to develop and maintain a workplace in which all employees are treated with professionalism and respect. Although FEMA's investigation provided insights into the culture and misconduct in one FEMA office, it was not designed to provide a comprehensive account of harassment and discrimination across the organization.

Thus, FEMA asked the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) to provide an independent and objective assessment of the prevalence and characteristics of harassment and discrimination at FEMA. In April and May 2019, HSOAC fielded a survey designed to estimate the annual prevalence of workplace harassment and discrimination at FEMA and assess employee perceptions of leadership and workplace climate. In addition to sexual harassment, the survey assessed gender discrimination and racial/ethnic harassment and discrimination to provide a more complete description of the types of civil rights violations (harassment or discrimination on the basis of membership in any protected class) experienced by FEMA employees. This report contains detailed documentation of the results of that HSOAC-fielded survey.

Key Findings

Sexual harassment was less common than other types of incidents

  • Among violations that were sex- or gender-related, most victims were targeted with gender-based or sexist behavior—either those behaviors alone or sexist behavior in combination with harassment that was sexual in nature.
  • An estimated one in five employees experienced racial/ethnic harassment or discrimination in the preceding year. Women experienced higher rates of gender-based/sexual civil rights violations than men did, and racial/ethnic violations were most commonly experienced by employees who identified as two or more races or as African American.

Rates of civil rights violations varied across offices

Perceptions about direct supervisors were consistently more positive than those about senior-level FEMA leadership for climate for both sexual and racial/ethnic harassment

  • A majority of FEMA employees said leaders would respond appropriately to negative gender-related or racial/ethnic climates, but a fairly substantial proportion perceived leadership behaviors as neutral, if not actively harmful.

Employees are not confident that reports filed will be handled properly

  • About one-third to one-half of employees who experienced harassment or discrimination in the preceding year indicated that they had told a supervisor or manager or officially reported it to FEMA through another channel.

Most people who told a supervisor or manager about or officially reported discrimination were either neutral or dissatisfied with FEMA's response

  • Retaliation was also frequently reported.


  • Ensure that prevention efforts address all problematic behaviors, not just the ones making headlines.
  • Explore differences in culture and climate between offices with low rates of civil rights violations and those with higher rates. Doing so could aid in development of best practices that could be used across FEMA.
  • Explore interventions with leadership at all levels to ensure that all understand how best to handle harassment and understand their responsibility to address it. A more visibly united front at all levels of leadership would send a clearer signal to employees about what types of behavior are appropriate and ensure that incidents are managed as required—at all levels.
  • Reduce barriers to reporting. Ensure that leadership at all levels knows what to do with a report and has the tools at hand to take action. Hold supervisors accountable for dealing with concerns associated with retaliation. If it is not already part of the performance review process, include an evaluation of how supervisors handle these issues.
  • Increase accountability and transparency in dealing with harassment and discrimination reports at all levels of leadership. Increase accountability and transparency at all levels of leadership so employees have some sense that action was taken to protect them from further negative workplace experiences. Accountability and transparency can also ensure that FEMA employees who report do not experience retaliation.
  • Continue monitoring harassment and discrimination in the workforce. Fielding a repeating survey every two or four years would allow FEMA leadership to track the prevalence of civil rights violations in the workforce over time and would provide an objective measure of the effectiveness of any policy changes and prevention efforts that are enacted.

This research was sponsored by FEMA's Office of Equal Rights and conducted within the Strategy, Policy and Operations Program of the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.