2023 Management Excellence

Rear Adm. Nancy Hann 

Instituted policies to dramatically curb sexual harassment, assault and bullying among employees aboard NOAA’s marine fleet and aircraft, creating a safer workplace and changing the organization’s culture.

For years, there was trouble on the high seas, as women routinely faced sexual harassment, assault and bullying aboard male-dominated government research vessels miles from shore. Six years ago, Congress took notice, prompting the passage of legislation requiring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to rectify this alarming situation.  

Nancy Hann, now a rear admiral in the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps, took decisive action to protect female employees and change the culture among its 330 officers and more than 800 civilian employees who operate NOAA’s fleet of 15 research and survey ships and nine aircraft. 

“Nancy Hann took the reins and almost singlehandedly helped transform the whole organization and its culture so that sexual harassment will no longer be tolerated,” said Benjamin Friedman, NOAA’s deputy undersecretary for operations.  

New policies instituted to curb harassment  

Richard Spinrad, the undersecretary who heads NOAA, said Hann implemented a rigorous training program tailored to the unique conditions aboard ships; hired a former FBI agent with experience in complex harassment cases as an investigator and required that he be on site within 48 hours of any reported allegation; held supervisors accountable in new ways; and eliminated bad actors from the workforce. 

“Prior to Rear Adm. Hann’s involvement in these issues, victims of harassment often avoided reporting violations due to the complicated investigative process that took months for a substantive response, allowing perpetrators to continue reckless behaviors and leaving survivors increasingly vulnerable,” Spinrad said.  

Some incidents were so egregious that Hann ordered research ships back to port before their missions were completed, to ensure the safety of personnel and to send a message to the organization that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. 

“This was controversial because, as a result, important data collection completely stops, and NOAA and other scientists cannot do their work,” said Nicole LeBoeuf, assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service. “Rear Adm. Hann’s actions were necessary to draw boundaries and expectations to protect the workforce and protect the mission.” 

Employees terminated for misconduct 

Under her leadership, NOAA has removed 23 people for conduct-related offenses since 2019, several of them senior mariners with years-long records of misconduct. Even as Hann made it easier and more comfortable for women to come forward, NOAA has experienced a 92% decrease in sexual harassment complaints due its aggressive enforcement policy.  

“I’ve seen her make hard personnel decisions. She takes this responsibility very seriously because she believes that is the only way to truly make change,” said Karen Hyun, NOAA’s chief of staff. “Rear Adm. Hann not only identified and addressed perpetrators, but she also empowered people to protect each other when they saw something happening.”  

Friedman said that Hann’s work has “extended throughout all of NOAA” and sparked change across the federal government. For example, NOAA’s aircraft personnel now have accountability measures to guard against sexual harassment and assault, and she has informed the development of new training and programming of other agencies, including the Coast Guard, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce.  

NOAA scientists collect marine and airborne data that feeds the nation’s weather and climate forecasts, supports fisheries and guides marine transportation. Some of NOAA’s research and survey ships operate in precarious environments such as the Arctic.  

Hann, who has been with NOAA for 26 years and served as a pilot and a flight meteorologist and has worked aboard the agency’s ships, said she had to deal with “a lack of action in the chain of command,” alter expectations, and send a clear message that everyone will be held accountable for a safe and respectful workplace.” 

“It is really important for everyone to have a voice and to feel comfortable physically, emotionally and mentally in the workplace,” Hann said. “I have the responsibility to be the voice of the people who don’t feel like they have a voice or are too scared. I take that responsibility very seriously.”