Perception of Race Inequality ‘Widespread’ in Federal Sector

blackhandA panel formed  by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2010 to identify obstacles faced by blacks  in the federal workplace  reported  this month that  “widespread perceptions of inequality” persist  among African American workers.

The report by the EEOC  African American Workgroup says that blacks who work for the federal government are victims of significant unconscious discrimination and stereotyping that falls outside the  current ambit of federal race  discrimination laws.  An example of unconscious bias  in the report is a supervisor’s failure  to mentor or groom African Americans for promotion because  of an unconscious belief or stereotype that African Americans are not seen traditionally as leaders.

The report also states that EEOC regulations are not being effectively enforced by federal agencies. The report states that  many agencies attain technical superficial compliance with EEO regulations and directives but “there is an overall lack of commitment by the agency heads to ensuring equal employment opportunities.”  Furthermore, the report states that some agencies view equal employment directives as “a burdensome adjunct to the operations of the agency.”

 Interestingly, the workgroup did not issue a typical report with specific recommendations. Instead, the workgroup related the findings and conclusions of  “dialogue partners” who were consulted by the workgroup, including federal Equal Employment Opportunity directors, Blacks in Government and the African American Federal Executives Association.

 The so-called dialogue partners concluded that the EEOC “lacks sufficient enforcement powers” to effectively combat discrimination and eradicate impediments for African Americans in the federal workforce.   The report is particularly critical of the EEOC’s inability to force agencies to discipline managers who were found to have engaged in unlawful discrimination.

According to the workgroup, the dialogue partners recommend the following steps to remove obstacle facing African Americans in federal employment:

  • Conduct unconscious bias training for all employees so they can become aware of their biases. 
  • Legal experts must analyze how unconscious bias can be evaluated as evidence of discrimination under federal civil rights laws. 
  • Agencies should establish formal mentoring programs and monitor their effectiveness in increasing equal employment opportunities.
  • All agencies should establish an African American “affinity group” and ensure it has the resources to provide meaningful networking opportunities for African Americans.
  • Agencies should establish objective and transparent criteria for granting employees’ requested training and offering developmental assignments. 
  • Agencies should expand recruitment methods by entering into partnerships with African American affinity groups, professional organizations, universities and media that will facilitate dialogue with African Americans who may be interested in careers with the federal government. 
  • Agency heads should make a commitment to address inequities in a proactive and effective manner, and should become more visible and hands-on in managing diversity and holding senior  management accountable for results. 
  • Agencies should ensure that education requirements are job related and a business necessity. 
  • As part of their annual performance ratings, managers, supervisors and senior executives should be evaluated in at least one element that assesses their commitment to equal employment opportunity principles and goals. 
  • The EEOC should publicize findings of discrimination in the federal sector in press releases.
  • The EEOC should seek legal authority to order punishment for responsible management officials.
  • The EEOC should “ issue an agency ‘EEO Scorecard’ that evaluates agencies’ EEO programs, inclusiveness, and accomplishments in various critical EEO elements, and it should be presented in a digestible, user-friendly manner that is available to the public.”

The workgroup cites a 2007 survey by the Merit Systems Protection Board that almost three quarters of all African Americans who work for the federal government report experiencing race discrimination on the job. More than half (51%) reported there was “great” or “moderate” discrimination while 15 percent said the discrimination was “significant.”

The EEOC’s New Gameplan

The situation in the United States is bleak, to say the least, for workers who are targets of employment discrimination and harassment.

 Federal courts are blatantly hostile to these types of cases –  dismissing most of them before they ever reach a jury – and our leaders in Washington, D.C., seem to be oblivious.

Part of the problem is that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that is supposed to be combating employment discrimination, is overwhelmed and underfunded.

 The EEOC says there has been  a 38 percent rise in the number of charges filed with the EEOC  against private employers and state and local government employers in the past 20 years.  But  the  EEOC’s staffing levels and funding dropped nearly 30 percent between 2000 and 2008. An infusion of resources in 2009 allowed for some rebuilding of capacity, but that was quickly stalled when funding was reduced and hiring freezes were implemented in FY 2011 and 2012.

The bottom line is that  many observers feel the EEOC has been about  as effective as a gnat battling an elephant in recent years.

 But  it seems that change is afoot. The EEOC is seeking public comment  (see below) on a proposed new strategic plan that it hopes will be more effective than the EEOC’s prior practice of  filing individual lawsuits against select employers. 

In its new plan, the EEOC says it will strategically attack  practices and issues that adversely affect large numbers of employees. The EEOC identifies five national priorities:

1.  Eliminate Systemic Barriers in Recruitment and Hiring. The EEOC will target class-based  hiring discrimination and facially neutral hiring practices that adversely impact particular groups. This includes, for example, steering of individuals into specific jobs due to their status in a particular group, restrictive application processes, and the use of screening tools (e.g., pre-employment tests, background screens, date of birth screens in online applications) that adversely impact groups protected under the law.

2. Protect immigrant, migrant and other vulnerable workers. The EEOC will target disparate pay, job segregation, harassment, trafficking and discriminatory language policies affecting these vulnerable workers who may be unaware of their rights under the equal employment laws, or reluctant or unable to exercise them.

3. Address Emerging Issues. The agency will address emerging issues with respect to:

-The Americans with Disability Act, particularly coverage issues, and the proper application of ADA defenses, such as undue hardship, direct threat, and business necessity;

-Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals coverage under Title VII sex discrimination provisions.

-Accommodating pregnancy when women have been forced onto unpaid leave after being denied accommodations routinely provided to similarly situated employees.

4. Preserve Access to the Legal System. The EEOC will target policies and practices intended to prevent  individuals from exercising their rights under employment discrimination statutes, or which impede the EEOC’s investigative or enforcement effort, including retaliatory actions; overly broad waivers; and settlement provisions that prohibit filing charges with EEOC.

5. Combat Harassment. The EEOC will launch a national education and outreach campaign – aimed at both employees and employers – to prevent and appropriately respond to harassment in the workplace.

 Okay, some of this sounds like politically-correct gobbledygook that is incapable of measurement. At the same time, it is encouraging that the EEOC is rethinking its past practices. The  38 percent increase in charges filed with the EEOC  also represents an increase  the suffering of American workers and their families who are subjected to illegal discrimination by employers.  American workers need all the help they can get!

Comments and suggestions must be submitted to the EEOC about the plan by 5 p.m. ET on September 18, 2012 at [email protected] or received by mail at Executive Officer, Office of the Executive Secretariat, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 131 M Street, NE, Washington, D.C. 20507. The Commission plans to vote on the draft plan at the end of this fiscal year.