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Commission to Review Agencies' Work on Bias Complaints

Alyssa Rosenberg | Government Executive

September 21, 2009

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will look into the quality of agencies’ decisions about bias claims, after a new report revealed that during a five-year period, the percentage of those decisions upheld on appeal declined considerably.

Click here to read the new report

“Federal agencies must step up their efforts to improve complaint processing time, while also focusing on quality results,” EEOC acting Chairman Stuart Ishimaru said in a statement.

Complaints of discrimination in the federal sector are investigated initially by officials at the agency where they are filed or by contractors employed by that agency. After the investigation is complete, the employee who filed the complaint either can ask the agency to make a decision, or request a ruling from an EEOC administrative judge. Agencies’ decisions can be appealed to EEOC. The percentage of appeals in which EEOC upheld the agency’s decision fell from 80.7 percent in fiscal 2004 to 66.6 percent in fiscal 2008.

“If we’re reversing every third decision, then that means we found that it was the incorrect decision,” said Dexter Brooks, EEOC’s director of federal-sector programs “That’s something that we’re going to look at….There are timeliness issues, but there’s also the quality of the data.”

Brooks said EEOC would have to determine whether the decline in the decisions upheld was the result of widespread problems in agency equal employment opportunity programs, or whether it was due to quality problems in a few large agencies that could be fixed on a program-by-program basis by applying best practices. He said issues such as insufficient training in relevant federal statutes and regulations and heavy workloads could contribute to rushed decisions that might later be reversed.

Agencies did get faster at investigating cases from fiscal 2004 to fiscal 2008, according to the report. The average time to complete investigations decreased from 280 days in fiscal 2004 to 180 days in fiscal 2008. Last year’s average was slightly higher than fiscal 2007, however, when it took 176 days to complete the typical investigation. In-house investigators employed directly by federal agencies took an average of 213 days to complete their investigations in fiscal 2008, while contract investigators took an average of 165 days.

The number of complaints filed by federal employees in fiscal 2008 increased to 16,752 from 16,363 in fiscal 2007. Both figures are considerably lower than the 19,024 complaints filed in fiscal 2004.

Sue Webster, president of Federally Employed Women, said she thought both the steep rate of overturned agency decisions and the processing lags were indicative of the low levels of resources agencies were committing to their equal employment opportunity and civil rights offices.

Brooks said EEOC and the Office of Personnel Management are discussing ways to collaborate more effectively and to make sure they don’t duplicate efforts. OPM and EEOC collect similar information about diversity in recruiting, for example, a process Brooks said could be streamlined. He said he expected that Christine Griffin, the EEOC acting vice chair who will serve as deputy director of OPM, would play a major role in those collaborative efforts.

“We’ve worked with them in the past but see the need to work with them even more in the future,” Brooks said. “We really are excited… [OPM Director John Berry and other agency leaders] have expressed a great desire to do things collaboratively.”

Webster said she hoped both agencies would include employee affinity groups in discussions about diversity, and noted OPM’s new leadership was receptive to FEW.

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