Yellowstone National Park will take “personnel action” — including counseling, suspension and termination — with 12 employees in response to claims of sexual misconduct and reprisal among staff, said park superintendent Dan Wenk.
It is one of several action items Wenk laid out in a June 7 response letter to a March report from the Interior Department Office of the Inspector General.
The Inspector General’s report, released publicly in April, investigated allegations made by a former park employee in a September 2016 magazine article, including gender bias, sexual harassment and financial misconduct in the maintenance division. Investigators found there was “credible evidence that male supervisors and staff in the Maintenance Division Unit created a work environment that included unwelcome and inappropriate comments and actions toward women,” the report said. The investigation also confirmed women were subject to inappropriate comments and actions at work and that supervisors fostered a “negative work environment.”
Wenk told Wyofile after the report first became public that Yellowstone’s culture needed to change. In his response letter he outlined five actions to begin that change.
“These are a response directly to the allegations brought forth with the inspector general’s report,” Wenk said.
The first is personnel actions against 12 employees.
Next, Wenk wrote, the park will hire an outside consulting firm to conduct a workplace climate survey of park staff. The inspector general’s report focused on the Maintenance Division, because it was investigating claims specifically dealing with that department, Wenk said. The consulting firm, however, will evaluate all divisions in the park to identify issues management needs to address.
“There are issues in the park,” Wenk said. “Any place you have 800 employees there are going to be some issues.” The consultant data will help management identify those problems and solutions, but also help Wenk understand what barriers employees face in reporting issues. The Inspector General’s office found 14 percent of 217 respondents from a 2016 exit survey said they “disagree” or “strongly disagree” with the statement, “I felt empowered to report occurrences of safety concerns, discrimination, sexual harassment, a hostile work environment and/or bullying.”
Wenk said he wants to assuage employee fears of retaliation from supervisors for reporting harassment. He knows seasonal employees hesitate in bringing things forward because they worry they won’t get rehired next year. He wants employees to understand their rights and feel comfortable in coming forward.
The park will also update its alcohol policy. The report investigated allegations of alcohol use on the job. Employees are not allowed to drink on the job, but the policy might need clarification for circumstances like those who work in the backcountry for multiple days and are off-duty in the evenings, but still in a work setting, Wenk said. The park doesn’t necessarily need to change its policies, but must make them clear, he said.
Wenk, along with other management staff, will evaluate the organizational structure of the maintenance division in the park to see if changes should be made to make the department more efficient, but also to ensure appropriate supervisory span of control, he said.
The last action Wenk outlined is a thorough review of government charge card use by staff park-wide. The report investigated a supervisor giving employees his government credit card when they ran out of credit on their own. A former employee admitted in the investigation to using their credit card for occasional personal cash advances, which she paid back, in the 1990s.
Wenk closed his response letter by saying the behavior described in the Office of the Inspector General’s report is “unacceptable” and no employee should experience the behavior detailed in the report. He said the report showed “a work environment that needs to be corrected,” and that the park has zero tolerance for the behavior the report outlined.
The actions outlined in Wenk’s letter are in addition to efforts already underway in the park. In June 2016, the park initiated mandatory training for seasonal employees on identifying and reporting sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. Supervisors also completed mandatory trainings on sexual harassment, age discrimination, disability and hostile work environments.
“Will there be more training?” Wenk said. “Absolutely there will be more training.”
The park also administered a seasonal employee survey last August through October. Wenk also visited several seasonal employee trainings this year to reiterate the park’s commitment to a safe work environment and encourage reporting any harassment directly to him if a frontline supervisor didn’t take it seriously.
“We’re working on it,” Wenk told Wyofile. “I would not sit here and tell you that everything is wonderful in Yellowstone National Park, but we’re working on it.”