Anyone who has been a supervisor in the federal government for more than a few years has likely been named as a responsible management official (RMO) in an EEO complaint. Many of you in HR, ADR or EEO programs are probably asked for help or advice from managers when they encounter their first complaint. In this and future postings, we’d like to discuss some strategies for helping supervisors manage how they react to EEO complaints.
Many managers recoil with the prospect of having their integrity questioned. Those are the managers we want to help. Talk them down from reacting on a personal level. We find it helpful to remind them that the EEO process is driven by a complainant’s belief that he or she has been wronged, whether that belief is true or not. In many instances the employee feels the EEO complaint process is their only course of action, while the manager feels the complaint is a personal attack or considers the complaint baseless or even frivolous. Managers are often perplexed as to why an employee would even consider claiming that they intentionally practiced discrimination. They often have feelings of anger, bewilderment, and betrayal when one of their employees alleges that they have discriminated against them. Just as the complainant may have strong feelings that they have been discriminated against, managers are also likely to believe fervently that they have done no wrong. This is when it is important to redirect the manager’s viewpoints regarding the employee’s perspective and the EEO complaint process.
Generally the manager is focused more on the employee filing a complaint against them and not about the issue the employee is complaining about. Here is where you need to guide the manager to separating the issue from the employee. Managers do not realize that their words or actions may be seen as manifestations of illegal discrimination. Often it is not addressing an employee’s concern or perception that leads to a discrimination complaint in the first place. Focus the manager on sharing perspectives with the employee, discussing ways for moving forward and exploring possible solutions. Both the EEO complaint process and ADR, not only lend themselves to this type of interaction between management and complaining employee, but actually require it.
While we remain mindful that employment discrimination still exists, those of us in this field know that the root cause of many EEO complaints is poor communication. Even when no one has intentionally set out to discriminate against another, illegal discrimination can be interpreted from seemingly innocent acts. Because each employee and manager brings a unique set of values to the workplace, misunderstandings abound. The key is in how we handle them. If the misunderstanding manifests in the EEO complaint process, we have to help managers understand that, first and foremost, the employee has the right to avail himself or herself of the EEO complaint process and that the manager can use the complaint as an opportunity to open or improve communication with the employee. This is a far more productive reaction to EEO complaints than becoming defensive. Ultimately, our challenge as EEO, HR, ADR and diversity professionals is to coach managers through their initial reactions with an eye on helping to resolve the dispute.
Please share any strategies you have used to assist managers through claims of discrimination.
So what if a manager asks what he or she can you do to prevent or minimize the likelihood of a complaint being filed against them? We’ll take that on in our next post!