FEMA tries to manage its own emergency

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has concluded an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct by its former head of HR, which FEMA Administrator Brock Long described as “a systemic problem going on for years.”

The focus of the seven-month internal investigation was Corey Coleman, who until recently was the agency’s personnel chief.

FEMA’s internal investigation revealed that Coleman circumvented federal hiring practices to bring on board fraternity brothers, close friends and women he met at bars and on dating sites. In many cases, the new employees were not qualified to perform their jobs.

Coleman also allegedly transferred women to different regional offices with the intent of allowing his friends to pursue sexual relationships with them. He resigned before talking to investigators and did not cooperate with the probe.

In an agency-wide email, Long described how the current investigation arose out of a 2015 sexual harassment complaint against Coleman. In all, investigators interviewed 73 FEMA employees.

Long promised in his email to usher in a new culture by engaging an outside firm to provide mandatory sexual harassment training, providing counseling services to those who allege harassment and opening a new office to investigate sexual harassment complaints.

Investigators learned that on three occasions, Coleman had been moved to regional positions because of sexual harassment allegations, only to be returned to his old position. Each time, FEMA referred complaints to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the agency, only to have them bounced back with no action taken.

Final note: Employers often face the limits of their own investigative procedures. When investigations drag on too long and turnover rates become worrisome, it’s time to make a change. Consult your attorney on the best way to move forward without triggering discrimination or retaliation charges.

Advice: Sometimes, the best strategy is to engage an outside investigator who can provide an objective, third-party analysis. (See “Consider hiring outside attorney to conduct investigation into HR harassment” to learn more about outsourcing investigations.)