VA 'distressed' by allegations of whistleblower retaliation
Leaders at the Veterans Affairs Department are deeply concerned and distressed about allegations that whistleblowers are routinely retaliated against, Dr. James Tuchschmidt, VA's acting principal deputy undersecretary for health, said in a prepared statement for Congress yesterday.
VA's core values are integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence, Tuchschmidt wrote to the House's Committee on Veterans Affairs.
"To get to excellence, we rely on the integrity, experience, observations, insights, and recommendations of VA’s front-line staff, those who work professionally and compassionately with veterans each and every day," he said. "We value that input and rely on it to help us better serve veterans."
The department will not tolerate an environment where employees who seek to report deficiencies are either ignored, or worse, intimidated into silence, Tuchschmidt continued. Leaders are responsible for creating a workplace atmosphere in which employees are comfortable sharing success and identifying areas for improvement, he said.
"Across VA, we expect workplace environments that protect the rights and enable full participation of all its employees," the acting undersecretary wrote.
To achieve this goal, all 330,000 VA employees receive anti-discrimination and harassment prevention training biennially, Tuchschmidt noted. "We also recognize that supervisors and managers bear a heightened responsibility in maintaining a fair, safe and inclusive culture," he added.
VA executives, managers and supervisors must complete additional training on diversity and inclusion, equal employment opportunity and conflict management, Tuchschmidt said.
"We expect employees to bring to the attention of their managers and supervisors shortcomings in the delivery of our services to veterans, any perceived violations of law, rule or regulation, official wrongdoing, gross mismanagement, gross waste, fraud, abuse of authority, or any substantial and specific danger to public health or safety, “ he wrote. "Intimidation or retaliation against whistleblowers -- or any employee who raises a hand to identify a legitimate problem, make a suggestion, or report what may be a violation of law, policy, or our core values -- is absolutely unacceptable.”
Everyone at VA has the responsibility to enforce appropriate workplace behavior, he said.
"Protecting employees from reprisal is a moral obligation of VA leaders -- a statutory obligation -- and a priority for this department," Tuchschmidt said.
VA will take prompt action to hold accountable anyone who takes reprisal against whistleblowers, and that includes appropriate disciplinary action, he noted. All VA employees are notified of whistleblower protection rights through an annual policy statement from the VA secretary, Tuchschmidt wrote.
Employees of the department have several options if they feel they are being retaliated against, the acting undersecretary said.
"Employees may file a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, or appeal directly to the Merit Systems Protection Board. Employees are also always free to report whistleblower reprisal to a VA management official, to VA’s independent Office of Inspector General, and to the Congress," he said.
VA is committed to ensuring that all allegations are properly investigated, Tuchschmidt said.
"We also will not tolerate retaliation against any employee who raises a hand to identify a legitimate problem or suggest a solution," he added.
(Follow Claudette Roulo on Twitter: @roulododnews)