NIH must set rigorous policies on sexual misconduct and enact penalties for non-compliance

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This article is part of The Cancer Letter's Ending Sexual Misconduct in Academic Medicine series.

Last month, the NIH finally responded to a request by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to obtain information about NIH’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

The agency—which has been under fire for its lack of systems to address the pervasive culture of sexual harassment at grantee institutions—responded to the committee’s questions in a letter that details the changes NIH has made to address harassment and discrimination in NIH extramural biomedical science.

While the NIH has certainly made some progress in achieving greater transparency and accountability over the past year, any meaningful approach to addressing workplace harassment requires a holistic viewpoint and a strong commitment from leadership to carry it out. 

As the agency continues to build out its workplace harassment strategy, there are a few themes its leadership should consider prioritizing:

Increasing transparency

Transparency plays a key role in preventing workplace harassment. Employers can create shared norms, build trust, and demonstrate accountability by developing and communicating clear written policies that describe expectations for acceptable behavior, processes for responding to unacceptable behavior, and information on instances when policies were violated and the actions the organization took in response.

Companies in the private sector are increasingly sharing their written policies externally with third parties, including members of the public, in order to create shared norms around acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in the workplace. Many organizations also share information about their response to policy violations, both internally to employees and externally to the public.

The NIH must proactively establish that workplace harassment will not be tolerated within the institution as well as in the organizations it funds.

The NIH is no exception, publishing deidentified data on the numbers and outcomes of allegations it has received related to harassment and discrimination involving projects at NIH-supported institutions. The data are posted to a public website and regularly updated multiple times each year.

This is a best practice our team at The Purple Method recommends all employers take, as employees are more likely to feel comfortable reporting harassment or misconduct if they can see that their employer takes these issues seriously.

As another positive step toward increasing transparency, the NIH announced in March that it would launch a Workplace Civility and Equity Survey triennially for federal employees, contractors, and all other NIH staff. The survey seeks to identify the prevalence of harassment and discrimination at NIH, with the goal to provide actionable results to help inform strategies towards a diverse, equitable, inclusive, accessible, and harassment-free NIH workplace.

To best learn about employee needs and the current state of the NIH workplace, the survey should also include questions about the impact and effectiveness of current policies and procedures. The best prevention-oriented climate surveys are anonymous, confidential, and explore workplace culture and environment in order to identify employee needs, gaps in response, and workplace expectations.

Once the NIH has received the responses, the agency should commit to sharing the results internally with employees and contractors to demonstrate that their feedback has been heard and is being taken seriously. As the survey will be administered on a triennial basis, the agency should plan to compare responses across the years to see the positive or negative impact its revamped policies and procedures have made once enough iterations have taken place. Once collected, this longitudinal data should also be shared with employees.

Reinforcing policies through training

The Purple Method is pleased to see that the agency has taken substantive actions to address workplace harassment and discrimination, including analyzing and updating internal agency policies and procedures.

The NIH has created a webpage where employees, grantees, and the public can learn about the process by which allegations of harassment in NIH-funded activities can be made to and evaluated by NIH. While publishing this information on the agency website is one way to ensure employees have access to this information, these new policies should also be included in an anti-harassment training program that is customized to the agency.

Strong harassment policies and systems are essential components of a successful harassment prevention strategy, but only if employees are made aware of them. The NIH needs to provide regular, interactive, and comprehensive training so employees understand the workplace culture, expectations, written policies, and systems in place, as well as the consequences of misconduct.

A 2021 report from The Purple Campaign and TalentLMS revealed the importance and benefits of providing employees with sexual harassment training. According to the report, 90% of employees responded that after receiving training they were more aware of how to report an incident of sexual harassment.

As such, if the NIH wants to build and maintain a safe, inclusive work environment for all employees and grantees it needs to consistently reinforce its new policies and procedures via a comprehensive training program.

Following up on reports

Reporting is a central component of addressing workplace harassment. Employers should establish various proper reporting channels and cultivate an environment that encourages employees to speak up.

Providing your workforce with various options to report—anonymously, online, via phone, or to one of several individuals within an organization—allows the reporting individual to choose the process by which and the person to whom they are most comfortable sharing this information.

In a 2021 survey of 822 full-time employed Americans, 85% of respondents who experienced harassment said that they would be more likely to report harassment if their organization had an anonymous channel.

The NIH has taken an important step by providing an external channel for people to report misconduct in the sciences. NIH launched a website to inform the public and grantee community of the process by which allegations of harassment in NIH-funded activities can be made to and evaluated by NIH. The agency also designed an NIH Anti-Harassment Portal which can receive allegations anonymously from the biomedical research community or notifications from extramural institutions of allegations made to them. Allegations can also be received via the mailbox.

Yet, the effectiveness of these additional channels depends upon the Office of Extramural Research (OER)—the entity receiving the reports—following up on all reports of harassment received through those channels. The office cannot merely send out automated responses to individuals making reports without taking the necessary next steps to conduct a timely, thorough investigation process and take disciplinary action in response to substantiated cases.

Further, the agency needs to adopt a standard timeframe for conducting investigations and ensure employees are aware of this timeline and process. The more information the NIH provides to its workforce and grantee institutions, the more likely individuals will feel comfortable speaking up about misconduct they experience or witness.

Ensuring accountability

Some of the most common issues that arise with the handling of sexual harassment claims include delays in completing an investigation, failing to protect parties’ confidentiality, and a lack of transparency around the outcome of an investigation. Implementing better investigation practices and corrective action measures signals to employees that sexual harassment is not tolerated and those who cause harm will be held accountable.

NIH seems to be making positive strides when it comes to ensuring accountability by grantee organizations. The agency’s letter notes that once OER has the needed information, the recipient institution is given 30 days to respond to a letter from OER leadership. A letter is also sent to the complainant letting them know that NIH has reached out to the institution.

The recipient institution may respond to indicate that they have already received and handled the complaint, or they may initiate an inquiry or investigation. OER will then ask the institution for details regarding the outcome of the investigation and/or disciplinary actions taken against the individual.

Employees are more likely to feel comfortable reporting harassment or misconduct if they can see that their employer takes these issues seriously.

As it moves forward with these new protocols, the NIH should regularly follow up with grantee institutions, particularly if the institution indicates that it has received and handled the complaint, to ensure that grantee institutions have acted appropriately in addressing the reports made.

In its mishandling of the Axel Grothey case, the NIH failed to maintain any transparency with the reporting parties on whether an investigation would occur or what corrective action would take place.

While the new policies seem to be intended to make sure this lack of communication does not happen again, NIH cannot let grantee institutions off the hook by failing to follow up on reports or keep claimants in the loop. 

To establish fair and consistently applied disciplinary action across the various organizations, the NIH should create and share a progressive disciplinary chart or corrective action matrix with each NIH-funded institution.

In addition to this step, the agency should encourage grantee-institutions to consult with outside experts to review and provide guidance on their codes of conduct and any other policies addressing workplace harassment.

As the E&C Committee’s letter to the NIH in March of this year aptly noted, the issues arising from the Grothey case is only one manifestation of a broader concern affecting NIH grantees and NIH-supported researchers. And the NIH’s half-hearted responses to repeated requests from the committee for updates do little to assuage concerns that the agency is committed to taking this pervasive harassment problem seriously.

While the agency has taken important steps to create safer and more respectful workplaces for employees, there is still much room to improve. NIH leadership must commit to “walking the walk” rather than just “talking the talk.”

As the nation’s leading medical research agency and the world’s biggest funder of biomedical research, it’s not enough to simply react. The NIH must proactively establish that workplace harassment will not be tolerated within the institution as well as in the organizations it funds.

Shea Holman serves as the counsel and chief operating officer for The Purple Method, a consulting firm that focuses on addressing and preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Shea Holman, JD
Counsel & chief operating officer, The Purple Method
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Two Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have published a “framework” for reforming NIH—consolidating the agency’s 27 institutes and centers into 15—arguing that a fundamental rethinking of NIH’s structure would fix what they describe as a “system rife with stagnant leadership, as well as research duplication, gaps, and misconduct.”
Shea Holman, JD
Counsel & chief operating officer, The Purple Method