EEOC report paints an Uncle Sam all too human

Joe Davidson
Columnist August 24

It would be nice to think of Uncle Sam as an employer above reproach, one who does not stoop to common human frailties such as revenge and retribution.

Maybe the symbolic Sam is. But the people he employs are human and do not escape weaknesses that afflict the species.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

Retaliation is one of those weaknesses. It’s not unusual for federal whistleblowers to feel the retaliatory sting of managers after wrongdoing has been exposed. Reprisals against whistleblowers were on glaring and shameful display during the recent scandal over the coverup of long wait times for service at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.

Now comes informative tidbits from an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) report released last week.

Of the 15,837 complaints alleging federal employment discrimination in fiscal year 2012, almost half, 7,457, involved allegations of reprisal/retaliation. That’s by far the largest category, according to EEOC. Allegations of discrimination based on age and against African Americans followed, with 4,915 and 4,042 respectively.

Reprisal/retaliation allegations are filed by employees who believe they have been punished by supervisors after “opposing an agency’s discriminatory policy or something of that nature,” said Jamie Price, an assistant EEOC director.

“Because they participated in that process, the EEO process, or opposed some type of illegal discrimination or action by the agency, the agency then took an employment action against them,” Price said. Examples of employment actions are transfers, promotion denials and terminations. The report does not indicate the number of allegations that were substantiated.

While complaints of reprisals against federal employees are common, reports of disciplinary actions against bosses who engage in retaliation are rare. EEOC does not track that information.

The good news is the number of allegations in complaints to EEOC is going down. Fiscal year 2012 recorded the lowest number of allegations since 2008 in the categories of reprisal/retaliation and age. Complaints regarding discrimination against African Americans were at the lowest point since 2010.

Won’t Back Down

What’s the difference between decisions made by high-performing federal executives and decisions made by other leaders?

Courage.

A paper presented this month in Philadelphia at the Academy of Management’s annual meeting said the most difficult decisions for the celebrated executives were those that involved “some personal, political, or organizational risk.” The title of the paper is “ ‘I Won’t Back Down’?: Complexity and Courage in U.S. Federal Executive Decision-Making.”

Written by Steven Kelman of Harvard University, and Ronald Sanders, Gayatri Pandit and Sarah Taylor of the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm, the paper is based on interviews with 20 heads of subcabinet-level agencies. Ten had been nominated by good government groups as outstanding performers. The other 10 were chosen at random.

“We found that when we asked these executives to discuss their most difficult decision, most identified decisions that were not informationally complex but instead mainly required courage to make,” the authors wrote.

Here are some points from the study:

●Nine of the top performers identified courage as a key element in hard decisions, compared with five in the random group.

●The high-performing executives were more likely to rely on information from written sources and outside academics.

●Top performers were more likely to “bring in representatives of people in the organization with different points of view.”

Yet, one “surprising finding” for the authors is “that many executives whose most-difficult decision involved courage chose to make the decision alone, without consultation.”

What the decision-makers need in those cases, the authors said, is not more dissenting views, but moral support “to avoid a temptation, in Margaret Thatcher’s vivid phrase, to ‘go wobbly.’ ”

The title of the paper draws from a tune Tom Petty recorded and wrote with Jeff Lynne. The role of courage in decision-making remains questionable, so the authors of the article placed a question mark in the title.

Here’s an excerpt of the song’s lyrics that seem appropriate for courageous federal decision-makers:

“Well, I know what’s right, I got just one life

In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around

But I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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