Billings Gazette: Yellowstone investigation finds inappropriate conduct toward female workers

Federal investigators say there is credible evidence of unwelcome conduct toward female workers in Yellowstone National Park.

Alcohol, inappropriate contact and remarks that female employees said made them feel “uncomfortable and degraded” were revealed during a seven-month investigation into Yellowstone’s maintenance division.

The report was issued Wednesday by Interior’s inspector general, who concluded that harassing workplace behavior by male employees had gone on for years because of actions or inactions of men in charge of the maintenance division.

“We found 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,” investigators reported.

The incidents involving a half-dozen women took place between 2010 and 2016, according to witnesses. Investigators interviewed 30 women and 26 men working for the division last year. Most said they hadn’t experienced or witnessed harassment, intimidation or discrimination. But seven of those women were concerned about a male-dominated environment and hiring discrimination.  

The investigation was launched last September after a male Yellowstone National Park employee, Robert Hester, conducted a tell-all interview with The Montana Pioneer, a regional publication.

After the article published, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk spoke with Hester about the allegations and launched an investigation with a contract investigator. The effort was called off when the inspector general got involved.

Wenk issued a statement Wednesday about the Office of Inspector General’s report.

“The National Park Service acknowledges the findings brought forth by the OIG and we appreciate the information that was gained through this comprehensive investigation,” Wenk said. “Serious problems were identified within Yellowstone’s Maintenance Division, which we take seriously and will be addressing. Many of the original allegations were found by the OIG to be inaccurate or exaggerated. Appropriate, professional behavior is expected from all employees. Moving forward, the park will consider appropriate actions, which may include personnel actions, organizational realignment, or changes to park procedures and policy.”

After conducting 100 interviews and reviewing 500 documents, investigators concluded that not all of Hester’s allegations were founded, including that supervisors hired women they wanted to have sex with and ignored poor work performance.

There were, nonetheless, serious problems at Yellowstone, investigators reported. The Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, which oversees the Interior Department, is likely to take up the report.

“The behavior described in this report is unacceptable and has no place in our National Parks or in any workplace across the country,” said U.S. Sen Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Daines is the new chairman of the National Parks Subcommittee. Daines’s Montana hometown of Bozeman is a short drive from Yellowstone. Rumblings of workplace harassment in Yellowstone have been circulating for months.

“Our National Parks make our country uniquely American — but they must be a safe place for employees to work,” Daines said. “I will demand vigorous oversight to ensure there is proper accountability.”

Maintenance Division supervisors seemed accepting or unaware of workplace behavior involving alcohol, according to the report.

One female park employee told investigators she was having a consensual romantic relationship with her supervisor while also struggling with a drinking problem at work. The woman was eventually fired for driving a park vehicle while intoxicated on the job.

The Maintenance Division supervisor said he understood the woman “had consumed alcohol at her supervisor’s house before driving the vehicle” drunk. He said he was unaware before the incident that the woman drank on the job.

Other employees contradicted their boss, saying the woman would drink on the job and had called her supervisor for rides home when she was concerned for her safety. One coworker said he had spoken to the division supervisor more than once about the woman’s drinking problem.

There were supervisors implicated in the report who have since retired.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, would not discuss the particulars of the investigation because it is a personnel matter. But Zinke acknowledged sexual harassment issues at Interior during an White House press conference April 3. He said the behavior won’t be tolerated under his watch.

“On the management side, we have unfortunately uncovered a lot of internal controls that weren’t there. There’s been in the news several incidents of sexual harassment and a culture of discrimination. And you can hear it from me, I put policies forth, zero tolerance for sexual harassment or discrimination,” Zinke said. “We have 70,000 full-time employees, and each employee deserves the right to enter a workplace that’s innovative, teamwork, but free from harassment.”

A couple of park maintenance workers reported watching their supervisor during an office equipment demonstration give a female employee a lower back rub that made witnesses uncomfortable. One witness said he witnessed a supervisor grab a female subordinate’s buttocks.

The woman involved said she couldn’t recall the Maintenance Division supervisor touching her during the demonstration, but if he had it was by the hips to move her out of the way. She said the supervisor had touched her shoulders and arms occasionally over the years. The supervisor would also stand behind her and put his hands on her shoulders while she was sitting, the woman said.

The Maintenance Division supervisor told investigators he didn’t grab the woman’s buttocks or rub her lower back during the demonstration. He did admit he could have touched her lower back because “they were friendly with each other and had a good working relationship.”

Asked if the touching was right or wrong, the Maintenance Division supervisor said, “Times have changed. Nowadays, yes, it’s wrong.”

Female workers also voiced concern of a “men’s club” atmosphere at work. One American Indian woman said male coworkers “would make sexual and racist comments in her presence while she was working, and their remarks made her feel uncomfortable and degraded.” The woman said someone also stole six pair of underwear from her dresser.

Another Yellowstone worker said she was exposed to verbal abuse and dirty language from two male coworkers, both of whom denied the remarks when interviewed.

One woman told investigators that Yellowstone was “a man’s world” and that park officials needed to “wake up” about male employees being very dominating.

The Yellowstone investigation launch in September came as Interior’s inspector general concluded that male employees at the Grand Canyon demanded sex from female workers, retaliating against women who objected.