WASHINGTON — The Justice Department faces “potentially significant and recurring” problems in its handling of sexual harassment claims, the agency’s watchdog said Thursday, weaknesses that are watering down enforcement of its zero-tolerance policy toward employee misconduct.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz, in a harsh report on how managers in Justice’s Civil Division handle accusations of workplace sexual harassment, found “systemic” issues and inconsistent policies for tracking, investigating and reporting cases. As a result, it said, there were weak, often inequitable penalties for employees with documented misconduct.

Investigators found that employees accused of improper behavior, whether it was inappropriate touching, demeaning comments or relationships with subordinates, were punished only with oral counseling, written reprimands, transfers or title changes.

In some cases, record-keeping was so poor – with cases kept on paper files – that investigators had trouble reconstructing events.

And supervisors routinely failed to report allegations of sexual misconduct to human resources officials and agency leaders, the agency’s watchdog report said.