Do you know how Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) fits into your responsibilities as a federal manager? Or are you just hoping a complaint won’t be filed against your organization?
For too many managers, the latter is unfortunately true. But as they say, knowledge is power. At Federally Employed Women’s 49th National Training Program, attendees learned the basics of EEO law and how to navigate various scenarios that can occur in any government workplace.
Whether you’re overseeing an entire agency, middle management, a new manager or are aspiring to lead, here are 10 things managers must know about EEO law:
1. The basics of EEO Law: EEO is the law passed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that protects applicants and employees from discrimination in hiring, promotion, discharge, pay, fringe benefits, etc. on the basis of age, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, genetics and/or disability. All organizations whether in private or the public sector are held to the standards of EEO law to make sure they’re offering a fair, healthy work environment that treats all employees well, regardless of background.
2. What is workplace harassment: Harassment is any unwelcome verbal or physical conduct that is so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment. For example, unwanted touching may make it impossible for an employee to feel safe enough to do her job. Other examples include comments about a person’s clothing, anatomy or looks, insulting or intimidating comments, letters, calls or emails, display of racially charged symbols and/or unwanted questions about social/sex life.
3. What’s not harassment: EEO laws do not prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not serious in nature. To be covered by EEO, the conduct must be so objectively offensive as to alter the conditions of the individual’s employment. For example, an isolated incident like putting a swastika on someone’s desk is serious enough to be breaching EEO law after just one time. But overhearing office gossip about someone is not serious enough to file an EEO complaint.
4. Tangible employment action must be present: An example of where employees can file an EEO complaint is if a supervisor’s harassment results in tangible employment action – a significant change in employment status or benefits – (i.e. demotion, termination, failure to promote). Only individuals with supervisory or managerial responsibility can commit this type of harassment. If a tangible employment action results from harassment by a supervisor, the agency is automatically liable.
5. What makes a hostile work environment: A hostile work environment comprises anything from unwelcome comments or conduct which unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance or creates an intimidating or offensive work environment. Anyone can commit this type of harassment, including a management official, a co-worker or a non-employee.
6. When an agency is liable: If a management official or high-ranking official harasses an employee, the agency is liable even if management did not know about the incident, unless elements of an affirmative defense are promptly (within one week to one month) met. Elements of an affirmative defense mean the agency took prompt action to discipline the individual or take any necessary corrective action. Additionally, elements of an affirmative defense mean the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventative or corrective opportunities offered by the agency or to avoid harm otherwise. For example, the employee claimed they were being discriminated against but took no steps to file a complaint or make it known to anyone.
7. Disabilities and affirmative action: Able-bodied employees cannot complain because someone with a disability received an accommodation that they didn’t. When it comes to hiring individuals with disabilities, agencies can ask for medical information if the employee is not able to perform specific functions of a job, i.e. lift a certain weight, stand for a certain amount of time or takes medication that makes them unable to accommodate the working hours of the agency. If an agency does ask for medical information, it must correlate to the functions of the job. The agency should provide the employee with specific forms directing the doctor to assess the employee only based on medical ability directly tied to job functions.
8. Providing reasonable accommodation: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employee with a disability may ask for reasonable accommodation, i.e. teleworking for limited mobility or flexible schedules. Accommodation is an exception to a policy and may be needed for application processes, job performance and access to the workplace as well as benefits and privileges. Benefits could include a reader or interpreter for training programs since other employees get to access the training benefits. An accommodation, however, is not removing an essential function or hiring someone else to perform that function. You also cannot lower performance or production standards to accommodate an employee.
9. What constitutes undue hardship: An employer is not required to make an accommodation if it would impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s agency. “Undue hardship” is defined as an “action requiring significant difficulty or expense” when considered in light of a number of factors. These factors include the nature and cost of the accommodation in relation to the size, resources, nature, and structure of the employer’s operation. For example, an employee may have severe allergies to popcorn, especially if it’s heated around them in a microwave. The agency must reasonably accommodate the employee by designating a certain kitchen space that prohibits the popping of popcorn. It it were a larger agency with many floors and kitchens, an undue hardship would be to ban popcorn from ALL of the kitchens.
10. What is retaliation: Retaliation occurs when an employer takes a materially adverse action because an applicant or employee asserts rights protected by the EEO laws (“protected activity”). Retaliation includes employment actions such as denial of promotion, non-hire, denial of job benefits, demotion, suspension or discharge. “Protected from retaliation activities” includes participating in an EEO process or reasonably opposing conduct made unlawful by an EEO law – like speaking up about harassment. Even though anti-retaliation laws are very broad, employers remain free to discipline or terminate employees for poor performance or improper behavior, even if the employee made an EEO complaint.
By familiarizing yourself with EEO laws, you can better protect yourself, your employees and make sure your agency is compliant in providing a healthy and thriving work environment.
For more articles about Federally Employed Women and the 49th National Training Program, click here.