Inappropriate office romances are on the rise at the Justice Department, watchdog finds

Watching the watchers.
Watching the watchers.
Image: REUTERS/Loren Elliott
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On the same day a Manhattan judge sentenced disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to prison on charges of rape and sexual assault, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the US Department of Justice—which reportedly investigated Weinstein for sex crimes in 2018—released a sharply worded memo criticizing how the department handles intimate relationships between its own higher-ups and their employees.

The OIG, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog, found a recent increase in allegations of inappropriate affairs between supervisors and staffers, according to the seven-page memo. The problem, it explains, is that the Justice Department lacks consistent guidance on such entanglements, creating a host of issues.

“Among the concerns the OIG has identified is that some components’ policies impose reporting obligations on not only the supervisor, but also the subordinate,” the memo says. “In particular, the OIG’s review of allegations involving supervisor-subordinate relationships across components has led us to conclude that the imbalance of power between supervisors and subordinates has, in many instances, raised questions about the consensual nature of such romantic or intimate relationships.”

Some agencies within the Justice Department—the US Marshals Service, for instance—have policies governing employee-supervisor relationships, while others, like the Drug Enforcement Administration, don’t. Among those that do, the policies vary greatly from agency to agency. And this, according to the OIG, must be fixed.

“The OIG is concerned that these different policies—or in some instances the lack of any policy at all—have led or will lead to inconsistent disciplinary treatment of supervisor-subordinate relationships across the Department for similar or even identical conduct, which could undermine confidence in the fairness of the Department’s disciplinary system,” the memo warns.

The Justice Department has a “zero tolerance” policy on workplace harassment, which was reiterated in a 2015 memorandum distributed to all 100,000-odd employees. Two years later, however, an internal audit found that department officials had largely failed to stop it.

In one example cited by the OIG at the time, two Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives instructors “continued to engage in consensual sex with their students” for more than three years after told to stop. In another, a supervisory FBI analyst continued sexually harassing his subordinates for several years after being ordered to counseling and signing a pledge promising to stop. A third described the case of a male Justice Department attorney who was sent for counseling after behaving inappropriately with women coworkers and interns.

The OIG is now calling on the Justice Department to adopt a consistent policy governing supervisor-subordinate relationships across all of its divisions and to rethink any reporting obligations for those involved in romantic relationships with their supervisors.

The Justice Department did not respond to Quartz’s request for details about what steps it has taken, or plans to take, to enforce its zero tolerance harassment policy.