No Complaints Here: Equal Employment Opportunity in Washington

By Michelle Chen Aug 15, 2009

Being mistreated in your workplace because of your background is a pretty bad deal, but it’s worse when your boss is the government. Deep within the recesses of Washington’s bureaucracy, there is a commission devoted to ensuring that this does not happen to federal workers. It’s hard to tell whether it works, though, since the process of raising a complaint is almost too troublesome to even bother. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is designed to help enforce employee rights under the Civil Rights Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and other anti-discrimination laws. According to a recent audit by the Government Accountability Office, the law lays out procedures for the "prompt, fair, and impartial" investigation and adjudication of discrimination complaints brought by federal employees. But the process is continually hobbled by excessive delays and bureaucratic incompetency. A review of cases in fiscal year 2008 revealed that more than 60 percent of the hearing decisions failed to meet the mandated 180-day deadline; on average, it took nearly 280 days to issue a hearing decision. Just getting the case on the docket could take about two months. Key impediments cited by the study included: insufficient funding for the equal employment opportunity (EEO) offices at some agencies, a lack of accountability and understanding of the rules among officials charged with handling complaints, and a “lack of a firm commitment by some agency management and EEO officials to the EEO process.” A close look at the byzantine internal review process almost suggests the system is set up to deter action. Under current regulations, the actual complaint stage comes only after mandatory consultation with an agency’s “Equal Employment Opportunity counselor,” who can steer the worker into "alternative dispute resolution.” If the resolution process fails, the complaint can proceed to a formal hearing before an administrative judge, which could then lead to a lengthy appeals process. After all that, a worker who is still dissatisfied with the outcome can file a civil action in federal court. The whole ordeal could drag on for several months, and in the end, you still might end up screwed out of your job. When GAO researchers interviewed various sources representing agencies and employees, they found that “a few stakeholders identified the perception of unfairness as an overarching theme. These stakeholders commented that without the perception that the complaint process is fair, people may be frustrated and choose to not participate in it.” So there it is. Among the people who have been frustrated or backlogged in the complaint process, many may not consciously believe management is conspiring to stonewall dissent or systematically suppress evidence of bias. But here lies the difference between structural and individual forms of workplace injustice. The latter revolves around interpersonal disputes—they didn’t promote me because they’d rather pick a white guy, my supervisor dismissed me because she didn’t like my accent, the manager singled me out because he hates Arabs. Structural bias, however, is woven into the very fiber of the institutions that govern both the perpetrator and the target. And when the system is viewed as so unfair as to make protest seem pointless, discrimination scores an insidious victory—by crushing the ethical impulses that would have challenged an oppressive institutional culture. In that sense, the GAO report itself is a kind of complaint about equal opportunity in government. Despite various attempts to reform accountability procedures over the years, the researchers noted they have been raising criticisms about the process being "inefficient, expensive, and time-consuming" since the mid-1990s. Amid this constant stagnation, a lot of workers will continue to lose faith in a system intended to protect their rights. And while this status quo may not be the explicit goal of most agency officials, they’re not likely to complain about it.