Will State Miss Its #MeToo Moment?

Some say harassment policies and processes are failing foreign service officers.

By Emily Tamkin and Robbie Gramer
Illustration by Janice Kim for Foreign Policy

March 5, 2018

In a complaint filed in late December of last year, Adele Ruppe, a State Department employee, paints a depressing if now all too familiar portrait of a workplace that tolerated sexual harassment and responded to complaints with professional retaliation.

The complaint dates back to events in 2015, when Ruppe, a foreign service officer, was working in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. She alleges her then-supervisor, Benjamin Ziff, scuttled her chances of a plum assignment in favor of a woman he appeared to be pursuing.

Ruppe alleges she told Ziff, then a deputy assistant secretary of state, that their section had a problem with male supervisors bullying women. Ziff, according to the complaint, stopped her attempts to bring those issues to light and told her she was “paranoid and believed everyone was against her.” She also claims Ziff later blocked her attempts to secure a new position and instead tried to promote a female civil servant in whom he showed “an excessive amount of interest.”

The case is currently pending. Ruppe did not respond to request for comment, and Ziff said he was not permitted to comment. The State Department does not comment on matters that are under litigation.

But the case speaks to a larger issue haunting the halls of the State Department, one many at Foggy Bottom know all too well, according to over a dozen women who spoke to Foreign Policy.

The current and former State Department officials describe a culture in which patriotism and pursuit of the diplomatic mission meant ignoring or downplaying complaints of harassment. The officials describe a workplace in which rank and reputation were privileged over the well-being of State Department employees. They recount sexual harassment, assault, bullying, and rape inside an institution long dominated by men.

The women spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing going public could hinder their careers. Most of the cases they describe went unpunished, they say. In some of them, it was the accuser’s career that suffered.

The State Department does not deny that such cases take place, but it says that there is a process in place to ensure harassment complaints are reported, investigated, and handled in a consistent way. The State Department’s Office of Civil Rights handles the Equal Employment Opportunity, or EEO, process even though complaints are filed against the department itself. (One woman interviewed says that this means, in effect, the department assumes the role of defending the accused; this is true of all other agencies.)

When State employees or applicants for employment believe they are being discriminated against, they may use the EEO process to seek resolution. In an interview set up by the State Department, a senior official, who asked that their name not be used, says that not all victims of harassment want to go this route, as they simply want the “unwelcome behavior” to stop. (Employees may also be deterred by how long the process can take — one woman interviewed for this piece says her complaint for sexual harassment and retaliation sat for 16 months before an EEO commission judge and Department of State lawyer were assigned to the case.)

The current and former State Department officials describe a culture in which patriotism and pursuit of the diplomatic mission meant ignoring or downplaying complaints of harassment.

The Department of State also has an alternative process, the official says, that focuses on addressing the allegations of harassment and holding wrongdoers accountable. This process allows the department to conduct investigations into allegations of harassment, regardless of whether an EEO complaint is filed. The senior State official says that a supervisor who hears of harassment is required to report the allegation to the Office of Civil Rights, which then assigns the case to one of its attorneys to investigate.

Yet those who deal with the cases say the reality is often different from what is spelled out on paper.

“The procedures are one thing,” says Lynne Bernabei, a partner at Bernabei & Kabat, PLLC, which deals with sexual harassment law. “It’s really enforcement that makes a huge difference.”

And there are different points at which things don’t always go according to plan. One problem is that not all incidents are reported.

For example, one woman, who complained that a male colleague was playing with his genitals while talking to her, was told by a colleague that several men at post did that “to help them think” — that is, that this was not an offense worth reporting. Another woman who says she was grabbed and groped twice by the consul general at her post says she was told by the human resources unit that there was no need to report what happened, and that she would only create problems for herself were she to do so.

Bernabei told FP that, in her experience, “I haven’t found [a mandatory reporting requirement] to be a big deterrent.” She added, “the good managers do it, and the bad managers don’t.”

And if managers don’t believe people have problems worth reporting, or don’t encourage them to come forward, people often don’t. “People don’t want to be seen as a problem child. There’s a real kind of ‘put up or shut up’ culture,” says Jenna Ben-Yehuda, who spent 12 years at the State Department.

Ben-Yehuda recently spearheaded the widely read “#MeTooNatSec” open letter, which 223 women in national security signed in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and subsequent series of Hollywood sexual harassment scandals.

Another woman says that those who come forward are treated as “unpatriotic” by their colleagues. “You’re distracting from the mission of defending America — you need to step it up and stop complaining,” she says of the attitude.

And even those women who do want to report are often unsure of where to turn. “It becomes even more complicated when the person in charge of security is a problem,” one former State Department official says.

Though the reporting process is meant to ensure consistency, the reality remains that what happens to the accuser and accused while the investigation is underway varies greatly from post to post. Some of the women who were interviewed by FP spoke highly of those in positions of power at a particular post, but all highlighted the degree of variability. Sometimes, the alleged harasser or assailant is moved to a different post while the investigation is underway. Other times, that person remains in place.

One of the difficulties is that those who were allegedly harassed or assaulted are often — though not always — far from Washington, D.C., sometimes working alongside only a handful of other people. Sometimes the accused is removed from post for a time — and then allowed to return to work alongside the alleged victim.

Other times, that person is moved from post to post. “Part of what has happened — you have in the system a large percentage of the workforce that turns over every two years,” Ben-Yehuda explains. “The reality is that few managers are in roles for longer than two years, [but you have a] system in which these kinds of issues take many more years to resolve.” She says that the solution then sometimes becomes, “‘John did a bad thing. We’ll just have John do a rotation somewhere else.’”

But that is not necessarily the same thing as having one’s career negatively impacted. And, according to Bernabei, it’s the threat of professional repercussions — for example, preventing performance awards while the investigation is underway and shortly thereafter, which is the relatively new policy at the Department of Justice — that possibly curbs harassment. At the State Department, performance and promotion reviews for supervisors are not required to include information about alleged harassment or retaliation.

Those who do come forward often find that there is little mental health support for them in the process. “I don’t think State is good at mental health resources,” the same former foreign service officer who noted the challenge of reporting diplomatic security officers tells FP, stressing that the department focuses on resilience, meaning the ability to cope.

One woman, who says she was sexually assaulted by a non-State employee, tells FP she needed to pay her psychiatry fees out of pocket, only later reimbursed through health insurance (she also says she needed to tell eight men she was assaulted by a co-worker before she could complete all the paperwork she needed to leave for medical treatment). She says she was told by a later supervisor that she would receive a negative review for coming into work late, even after she explained she did so because of PTSD related to her sexual assault.

Another woman, who reported a rape by a contractor, says she was told by a State Department-employed psychiatrist, after she asked to move into an apartment where she felt safer, “Why do you think we owe you anything?”

Another woman, who reported a rape by a contractor, says she was told by a State Department-employed psychiatrist, after she asked to move into an apartment where she felt safer, “Why do you think we owe you anything?”

“Sexual harassment will not be tolerated at the Department of State,” Heather Nauert, the State Department’s spokeswoman, said in a statement to FP. “This has been made clear to Department employees — both domestic and international — and our senior-most officials have taken the lead in efforts to staunch unacceptable workplace behavior.”

Nauert pointed to Tillerson’s town hall earlier this year, and a recent panel discussion hosted by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on the issue.

“Addressing sexual harassment is one of Secretary Tillerson’s priorities and he has been hands on in this effort, drawing a clear line in the sand regarding behaviors that will not be tolerated at the State Department,” she said.

Yet those who do manage to come forward, risking the wrath of their managers or coworkers, may find their careers jeopardized. In a recent speech to the department, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said retaliation would not be tolerated. The woman with the stalled EEO complaint did not attend the speech, but, she says, “When I read that, I just wept.”

Even if no one immediately retaliates, the reality remains that reputation plays a starring role in how foreign service officers get their next assignments. Several women spoke to the importance of the “corridor reputation.” That doesn’t just protect the more senior and better-connected of the accused — it also has the potential to damage the careers of those who come forward.

The promotion and placement process still relies heavily on reputation and informal recommendations within the department. Those who file complaints are often labeled as a “troublemaker,” a former member of the foreign service says. “From the third tour on, it’s an internal lobbying process, very much driven by who you know,” the former foreign service officer says. “I could see where people would feel disincentivized to come forward. You have no privacy in these environments.”

The State Department is not blind to harassment. Between 2016 and 2017, reports of harassment at the State Department spiked from 365 to 483. State Department officials who spoke to FP say they can’t identify the cause of the spike, but surmise people felt more inclined to report harassment incidents as the national #MeToo movement unfolded. And it could also be that more are becoming aware of the processes and procedures in place.

The senior State Department official who spoke to FP about the legal process pointed to recent actions to address the issue, including a Jan. 11 panel discussion on how employees can report harassment. And Tillerson held a town hall meeting in February, during which he announced mandatory anti-harassment training for all employees within 90 days.

The issue is also getting more attention internally; the March issues of State, the department's internal magazine, and the Foreign Service Journal, a publication from the American Foreign Service Association, focus on workplace harassment.

Meanwhile, over in Congress, Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), a member of the Committee on Homeland Security, called for hearings into harassment in national security in response to the #MeTooNatSec letter. “These women are working every day to keep our country safe, but many of them feel unsafe in their own workplace,” Barragán said in an email to FP. (The Republicans who control the committee’s agenda have, so far, not responded to the call or scheduled hearings on the issue.)

In January, after the #MeTooNatSec letter came out, the 10 Democratic senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote a letter to Tillerson and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green demanding a review of on their agencies’ harassment policies. “In our responsibility to conduct oversight of the State Department and USAID, we must listen to these women’s voices and make dramatic, corrective change,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who co-led the effort, wrote.

It’s been over a month since the letter was sent. Congressional aides say the State Department still hasn’t responded to it. "They can’t get their act together on this because they have so many senior officials who have left,” a congressional aide says. “There’s no leadership that knows what to give to Congress.

“If Secretary Tillerson was really prioritizing this, [the senators] would have gotten a response already."

And town halls, emails, and letters aside, some remain unconvinced that the cultural change is coming.

“We know what it looks like when State cares about an issue,” Ben-Yehuda says, pointing to task forces, regularly scheduled meetings, and head counts. “Do they really care? I think they’re starting to think about it. But trust takes a long time to build. Especially when it’s been violated.”

Similarly, employees know what it looks like when State doesn’t care. “There’s a photo floating around of a person reading during the required harassment seminar,” a current State Department employee says. “They brought a book. They had it open. That gives you a sense of how important people think it is.”

Emily Tamkin and Robbie Gramer are staff writers at Foreign Policy.