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Slow Cultural Change in the US Coast Guard: Decisions to Prioritize the Structural Frame over the Human Resource Frame in Addressing Sexual Assault, Harassment, and Retaliation

Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Shannon Kearney

The US Coast Guard has experienced challenges in making decisions to change the aspects of their culture that enable sexual assault, harassment, and retaliation among the ranks.

The main challenge lies in how to make major cultural shifts in dispersed organizations in a timely manner, knowing that people will suffer until changes take hold.

The Coast Guard has been fairly swift in applying structural changes, such as improved policies. They have also initiated political influence tactics, such as having high-level leaders engage with the workforce, however, the Coast Guard has been weak in addressing problems using human resource (HR) methods.

Structural-focused decisions have prevented the organization from addressing the root of the problem, which includes that the indication that gender discrimination is strongly associated with sexual assault (RAND, 2015). From my experience in the Coast Guard (Walsh, 2021), the organization’s decisions to fix the issue of sexual assault, harassment, and retaliation without an HR-focused development of their members, has led to their failure in a broad cultural change.

Although the Coast Guard has begun to incorporate HR methods for addressing sexual assault, harassment, and retaliation, cultural change continues to be slow at all levels of the Coast Guard.

Background: Incidents Reveal Culture

The media reported a number of sexual assault, harassment, and retaliation incidents within the US Coast Guard over the last few years. Each story below provides insight into the cultural challenges that likely enabled sustained inappropriate behavior. The victims’ comments and reactions to the incidents exemplify a climate that has not been improved. Coast Guard leadership attempted to fix the problem primarily via structural means.

In 2021, Command Master Chief VerHulst, of the US Coast Guard Academy, resigned and was simultaneously removed from his position in relation to his continuous inappropriate behavior with female cadets, enlisted members, and officers (Ziezulewicz, 2021, September 14). According to the investigation, the cadet whose interaction with him sparked the investigation stated she did not want a formal investigation because she “was worried about impacting VerHulst’s retirement and about leaving the academy “in a negative light,” (2021), but she did not deny that he had been inappropriate.

In another incident, Dr. Kimberly Young-McLear, a Coast Guard Commander, blew the whistle on the Coast Guard top leadership after experiencing bullying and a biased investigation into her reporting (Pope, 2020). Despite the policy changes her whistle blowing initiated, as of 2020, she did not believe the Coast Guard had internalized the root causes of her case (2020).

In a case of long term abuse, Coast Guard supervisors labeled a female Coast Guard rescue swimmer as a “problem” after she formally reported sexual harassment and abuse. Despite her career achievements, she experienced retaliation for her reporting and harassment throughout her 20 year career (Hall, 2021).

The culture revealed by these three incidents indicate that, despite structural initiatives, the Coast Guard has retained a culture that allows for hostile environments to exist and leaves victims conflicted about risking their careers to hold people accountable.

Communication from Leadership

Coast Guard leadership communicated internally and externally that they are working to improve their culture in regards to sexual assault and harassment. The service’s communication attempts appealed to the people-centered human resource frame, but mostly used power-based political positions intended to influence the masses to create a better climate. Despite HR and political influence in some of the messages, the Coast Guard’s actions, as well as Congress’s direction, generally fell into the structural frame that focuses on procedures and policies.

Exemplifying political influence, in March of 2021, the vice commandant made a call to action for service members to eliminate sexual assault and harassment from the service and introduced a new prevention campaign that focuses on transparency, accountability, leadership, and communication (Ray, 2021). Also in 2021, President Biden was chosen to speak at the academy commencement following the case of the highest-ranking enlisted member of the Academy resigning over alleged misconduct (Hall, May 18, 2021), probably to bring high level leadership in as strong influence. Although the decision to use political influence against the cultural problem signifies consideration of frames other than structural, the impact is yet to be determined as of this writing.

Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Shannon Kearney

In communication to the media, a Coast Guard spokesperson affirmed that the Coast Guard had used findings to implement changes to improve the environment, “we have changed CG policies and procedures for responding to allegations of bullying, harassment, and hazing,” a commander confirmed (Coleman, 2019). Similarly, in articles to communicate how the Coast Guard is addressing sexual assault and harassment, the focus was on progress made in mass training of members (Sadowicz, 2021), which falls into fulfilling structural policies of training mandates. This differs from the HR frame that emphasizes programs to foster human development (Bolman & Deal, 2017).

In two cases that Congress examined, they determined that allegations of misconduct were not investigated in a prompt, thorough, and impartial manner. Moreover, Coast Guard leadership had not held anyone accountable for the failure (US House of Representatives, 2019). Congress concluded that policy and procedure improvements were needed, and noted that there needed to be a cultural change. Congress, however, did not address finding the root of the problem of what aspects of Coast Guard culture allowed the incidents to occur. Congress did not make HR-related recommendations.

Reframing: Conflict between Changes and Root of the Problem

Despite nearly a decade of implementing strategic initiatives (US Coast Guard 2018), the problem of sexual assault, harassment, bullying, and retaliation remain prevalent, even at the higher ranks of the Coast Guard. From analyzing the headline-making experiences women have had within the Coast Guard, along with my own experiences, it is apparent that the root of the harassment problem in the organization has not been sufficiently addressed.

RAND closed in on sources of problem in their 2019 study, which found that in terms of climate-related concerns, women leave the Coast Guard earlier than their male counterparts because of poor leadership, gender bias and discrimination, sexual harassment and assault, as well as other issues (Curry Hall, et al., 2019). The study found that male counterparts did not raise sexual harassment and assault as factors for retaining men, however mentioned those issues as factors that might influence women’s retention decisions (Curry Hall, et al., 2019).

RAND’s findings indicate that the core of the climate problem is human-centered, which may benefit from human-centered solutions rather than structural. It can be seen that over the years, the decisions around improving the climate focused on structurally addressing the issue by changing policies, rather than examining HR-related initiatives that could reveal why “bad behavior” has been allowed to persist. The structural focus likely delayed progress in an already slow process of initiating sweeping cultural changes across a historic and dispersed organization..

Background on the Human Resource Frame

The human resource (HR) frame began as a criticism of the idea that workers are just in their jobs to earn a paycheck and follow orders (Bolman & Deal, 2017). Early researchers argued that, in addition to their skills, people’s attitudes, energy, and commitment were also important (Bolman & Deal, 2017). Organizations started to focus on how they could retain talented people and turn them into more productive and innovative members of the organization (Bolman & Deal, 2017).

A strong HR philosophy that empowers its people has generally not been fully developed in the military, almost certainly because the military has a culture in which it controls much of a member’s life for a set period of time, as is generally required by its mission. Empowering employees has some limitations in this type of hierarchy. However, the military’s problems with sexual assault and harassment, that have continued after structural changes, has indicated that leaders should apply (and should have applied sooner) a stronger HR frame as they also solidify structural policies to support a better working environment.

Applying the Human Resource Frame

Improving human resource management includes taking on the “right” people and retaining employees (Bolman & Deal, 2017). Two specific HR-centered problem-solving initiatives are organizational development through questionnaires aimed at people issues and interventions to improve human relations (Bolman & Deal, 2017). In some alignment with questionnaires and interventions, the Coast Guard conducts climate surveys and trains victim advocates (US Coast Guard, n.d.). However, misaligned with the HR frame is that the climate survey is not preventative in nature. The Coast Guard has tended to rely on annual climate surveys to find problems and address them after a toxic climate had already developed.

Training members as victim advocates falls towards the structural side of managing problems, rather than developing people. This is because training may not address the power and climate issues at play that make positions like victim advocates exist. The Coast Guard is almost certainly not using HR methods to their fullest extent. Additionally, they may have missed addressing HR principles of having the “right people” on board and initiating interventions that prevent a culture that enables abuse of power.

Using the HR frame to consider how to build an organization with the “right people,” leaders can examine trends and backgrounds of the people who have been abusive. The service could initiate processes to prevent people with abusive tendencies from joining the Coast Guard through HR methods like thorough interviews with potential recruits or other assessments.

Additionally, to develop the “right people,” group interventions could be used, as a compliment to traditional training. The interventions would be focused on the developmental aspects of preventing people from using their hierarchical power inappropriately. They would occur early in a member’s career instead of part of more advanced level leadership training. Group interventions would develop human relation skills for members while they are still developing into organizational leaders. It would also serve as a place where members of concern can be flagged for follow up as they are considered for promotions.

Conclusion

Due to the predominant structural frame used in military organizations, like the Coast Guard, answers to questions like, “why are sexual assaults and harassment occurring?” have been answered with training and policy changes instead of more fully considering people and development. By homing in on policy, the Coast Guard has missed out on more fully addressing the cultural problem of sexual harassment, assault, and retaliation, which at its core is a problem among its people that will require more than rules and regulations to be solved.

(Further commentary and research should address the symbolic frame that also influences cultural change. Symbolic considerations include ensuring that women and minorities are represented throughout organizational units, institutions and publications. Symbolic representations might include statues, photos, articles, acknowledgements, etc, both during recognition months and throughout the year).

Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Shannon Kearney. Yankee-201 is led by an all-female company commander team consisting of Petty Officer 1st Class Elena Cappelmann, Chief Petty Officer Tiffany Moore, Petty Officer 2nd Class Kerrigan King, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Caleigh Vazquez.

References

Bolman, L.G. & Deal, T.E. (2017). Reframing Organizations. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Cammarata, S. (2021, June 23). Coast Guard commandant skirts accountability questions from lawmakers as reports of sexual assault in the service climb. Retrieved from https://www.stripes.com/branches/coast_guard/2021-06-23/Coast-Guard-commandant-skirts-accountability-questions-from-lawmakers-as-reports-of-sexual-assault-in-the-service-climbs-1783314.html

Coleman (2019, December 11). Congressional investigation finds Coast Guard leadership fell short on handling bullying. The Hill. Retrieved October 15, 2021 from https://thehill.com/policy/defense/homeland-coast-guard/474114-congressional-investigation-finds-coast-guard-leadership

Curry Hall, K., Keller, K. M., Schulker, D., Weilant, S., Kidder, K. L., & Lim, N. (2019, March 29). Why do women leave the Coast Guard, and what could encourage them to stay? RAND Corporation. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB10058.html.

Hall, K. (2021, March 30). She was a pioneering Coast Guard rescue swimmer. A tsunami of sexual harassment followed. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.miamiherald.com/news/article238336883.html.

Hall, K. (2021, May 18). Amid lingering reports of sexual harassment in ranks, Biden to address Coast Guard cadets. Retrieved October 13, 2021 from https://www.stripes.com/news/2021-05-18/Amid-lingering-reports-of-sexual-harassment-in-ranks-Biden-to-address-Coast-Guard-cadets-1489155.html

Pope, K. R. (2020, April 14). Conversations with a Coast Guard whistleblower. Forbes. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kellypope/2020/04/13/conversations-with-a-coast-guard-whistleblower/?sh=2848965a678c.

RAND (2015, May 15). Coast Guard Sexual Assault, Harassment Less Frequent Than in Most Other U.S. Military Services. Retrieved October 16, 2021 from https://www.rand.org/news/press/2015/05/27.html

Ray, C. (2021, March 19). Vice commandant: I charge you with eliminating sexual harassment and assault in our service. > United States Coast Guard > My Coast Guard News. Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.mycg.uscg.mil/News/Article/2543092/vice-commandant-i-charge-you-with-eliminating-sexual-harassment-and-assault-in/.

Sadowicz, T. (2021, September 7). Hundreds of new petty officers receive SAPRR training during “A” School. Retrieved October 17, 2021 from https://www.mycg.uscg.mil/News/Article/2759846/hundreds-of-new-petty-officers-receive-saprr-training-during-a-school/

US Coast Guard (2021, February 2). Expanding victim support: Ombudsman policy update removes mandatory reporting of sexual assault. Retrieved October 13, 2021 from https://www.mycg.uscg.mil/News/Article/2490661/expanding-victim-support-ombudsman-policy-update-removes-mandatory-reporting-of/

US Coast Guard (2018). Sexual Assault Prevention, Response, and Recovery: Strategic Plan 2018 -2022. Retrieved October 13, 2021 from https://www.uscg.mil/Portals/0/seniorleadership/COC/2018/SAPRR%20Plan_2018.pdf

US Coast Guard (n.d.). Victim Advocates (VAs). Retrieved October 16, 2021 from https://www.dcms.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/Assistant-Commandant-for-Human-Resources-CG-1/Health-Safety-and-Work-Life-CG-11/Sexual-Assault-Prevention-Response-and-Recovery-Program/Victim-Advocates-Sexual-Assault-Prevention-and-Response-Program-SAPR-CG-114/

US House of Representatives (2019). Righting the Ship: The Coast Guard must improve its processes for addressing harassment, bullying, and retaliation. Majority Staff Report. https://oversight.house.gov/sites/democrats.oversight.house.gov/files/RTS%20Final%20Report.pdf

Walsh, C. (2021). Fairly smooth operator: My life occasionally at the tip of the spear. Koehler Publishing.

Ziezulewicz, G. (2021, September 14). Here’s why the command master chief of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy was fired. Navy Times. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2021/09/14/heres-why-the-command-master-chief-of-the-us-coast-guard-academy-was-fired/.

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Caroline Walsh

Caroline Walsh

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Former CIA Analyst and Coastie. PhD Student. Author of Fairly Smooth Operator: My life occasionally at the tip of the spear, available now!