Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: Dealing with discrimination in the federal workplace

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Recent events in Indiana and Arkansas have renewed the national dialog about illegal discrimination, whether it involves discrimination based on sexual orientation, race, age, religion or gender. It’s an important conversation to have, and not least because discrimination in the workplace can drain the energy from an organization and take the focus away from getting a job done.

In many ways, the federal government has been a role model for other employers in the country. For example, a recent report from the Office of Personnel Management on the status of women in government shows that women hold 34 percent of the positions in the Senior Executive Service, compared to only 14.6 percent of executive positions in the private sector. And an executive order signed in 1998 affirmed the policy of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation in federal employment at a time when policies outside of government were less clear.

However, while it’s good to celebrate progress, it’s also important to understand that there is more to be done in the public sector — and that discrimination involves more than who is hired and fired. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, harassment is the most commonly alleged issue in discrimination complaints filed by federal employees every year. It accounts for 30 percent of the appeals resolved by the EEOC.

This rather disturbing statistic suggests that federal managers must not only be mindful of their own conduct toward employees, but also the behavior of those under their supervision.

Harassment is considered a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It is defined as unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), sexual orientation, disability or genetic information. Petty slights and isolated instances, however, do not ordinarily rise to the level of illegality.
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As a starting point, leaders should take a close look at their agencies’ policies. While the law lays out the broad principles that are enforced by the EEOC and the courts, each agency develops its own policies in accordance with the law, and you’ll want to ensure all managers and employees are aware of the rules.

But let’s be clear. It’s one thing to have a policy, but quite another to make sure it is communicated, fully understood and enforced. It should be made crystal clear that employees who are harassed or who observe harassment should let their superiors know as soon as possible, and communicated that they will not be punished for making the report.

A discussion of what constitutes harassment also should be part of any new employee’s orientation, along with painting a robust picture about the values of the organization. You’re much better off preventing problems than responding to them after the fact.

As a general rule, it is critical for managers to keep their ears to the ground and constantly monitor what is going on in the workplace, not wait until there is a problem that blows up. This means listening and talking to employees, and looking for signs of possible trouble.

As a manager, you need to take quick, decisive action if you see activity that might suggest a hostile environment, such as a derogatory note left in a public place, comments made during conversations in the workplace or abusive behavior.

If an incident occurs or you detect a pattern, it also might be useful to hold a staff meeting to make it clear to all employees that inappropriate behavior — including jokes that make fun of any particular group or comments that reinforce stereotypes — will not be tolerated. Of course, you will need to follow up with individuals to provide one-on-one feedback if you have direct allegations.

If the situation demands a more formal response, your agency should have a clearly outlined investigative procedure, and if the inquiry concludes that harassment has occurred, steps must be taken to stop the conduct and, if needed, to discipline the responsible individual and protect the victim.
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If you’re a senior leader, you must hold subordinate managers and supervisors accountable for being proactive in dealing with allegations of harassment and stopping them before they get out of hand. Discussions of these sorts of issues should also become a part of any formal performance reviews. And if one of your subordinate managers is the culprit, zero tolerance should be the rule.

What are some of the best practices you have witnessed? What are practices to avoid? Please share your ideas by leaving a comment below or by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Apr 21, 2015 at 12:04 PM

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