Federal Employment: Enter With “Eyes Open”

As discussed in 17 Steps: A Federal Employee’s Guide For Tackling Workplace Discrimination, the federal government is our nation’s largest employer. It has close to 2.5 million employees. It offers great benefits and competitive pay. However, the government struggles to exist as a “model employer” for promoting Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO).

Despite the Notification and Federal Employee Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (the No FEAR Act), and the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) of 2012, federal officials engage in unlawful civil-rights violations. In 2018, news outlets covered the federal government’s toxic workplace culture. The PBS News Hour reported on the rape, harassment, and retaliation in the Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service.  KSDK “5 On Your Side” I-Team reported on the National Geospatial Agency’s long-standing racial discrimination against black employees. CNN reported on the persistent sexual harassment at the State Department. National Public Radio (NPR) reported on the culture of fear and retaliation within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “Retaliation is the most frequently alleged basis of discrimination in the federal sector.” The U.S. Postal Service’s (USPS) fiscal year 2018 No FEAR statistics reveal that of the 4,095 complaints filed against the USPS, nearly half (2,060) of the complaints cited retaliation. Retaliation occurs when an employer punishes an employee for engaging in legally protected activity. Retaliation can include any negative job action, such as suspension, demotion, discipline, or termination.

Department of Homeland Security v. Robert MacLean

To glean insight on the workplace culture operating within many federal departments, look to Department of Homeland Security v. MacLean, Case 13-894 . In 2006, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) fired  Federal Air Marshal Robert MacLean after finding that he “blew the whistle” by alerting the press about air flight-safety concerns. MacLean, who held concerns about a post-911 terrorist-hijacking plot, challenged his firing. He took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.  In 2015, nearly a decade later, the Court sided with MacLean and he won his job back. Nevertheless, in March of this year, TSA fired MacLean for a second time.

Unfortunately, the retribution MacLean suffered while a civil servant is not uncommon.  Therefore, anyone seeking a federal career should know — all kinds of supervisors loom in the government. Some are committed leaders who foster fair treatment and high levels of employee engagement. Conversely, some are abusive managers with a savory appetite for revenge.  Hence, if you are a person guided by integrity enter the public-sector with your “eyes open.”

Recognize that harassment, discrimination, and subsequent retaliation for speaking out can happen to anyone, at any time, in any government agency. Therefore, before facing unfair treatment in the workplace make learning your legal rights and your redress options a top priority.

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