HR and EEO: “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”

There is often a tense relationship between EEO and human resources. Here are some of the reasons for the tension and possible solutions to the problem.

The title of this mid-70s hit song by War came to mind as I thought about the state of working relationships between Human Resources (HR) staff members and their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) counterparts during much of my Federal career.

There were difficult working relationships between HR and EEO, to a greater or lesser degree, in all six of the Federal agencies I worked for, and I heard similar stories from my HR friends (we were then known as "Personnel") in other agencies. In conducting HR- and EEO-related training for a number of different agencies in recent years, I have gotten the sense that some of those tensions still exist. That’s not exactly an ideal scenario for two offices which have to work so closely together on a variety of issues, so I thought it might be worth exploring some of the reasons for the often fractious relationships between HR and EEO — and some possible solutions.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far for expertise on both sides of the equation. In fact, I found it in one person, my friend and business partner, John Jones. John, whose Federal career, like mine, ended more than 10 years ago with early retirement, began his Personnel career in the Staffing function of what was then the U.S. Civil Service Commission (CSC). The CSC was abolished by the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) and replaced by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), but John still refers to it as "the Commission," and waxes nostalgic about when it was a "real agency."

John went on to serve as Regional Personnel Officer in two agencies and Regional EEO Officer in two agencies, winding up his career as an Agency Director of EEO, so he has a pretty unique background from which to draw in observing the working relationships between the two offices. He agreed that there have long been problems in the EEO-HR working relationship from the perspectives of both organizations.

John then provided me with some relevant background information and theories. He said that now-rescinded Federal Personnel Manual (FPM) Chapter 713 was the key Federal guidance on the EEO program prior to the CSRA, noting that it flowed from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972. The latter Act stated that the Federal Government was subject to Title VII, and that Federal executive agencies must make all personnel actions free from discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion or national origin. The EEO Act of 1972 required affirmative employment programs, and resulted in the establishment of agency EEO offices.

As John saw the situation, part of the friction between HR & EEO offices emanated from the top – the CSC/OPM and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) seemed to be locked into a perpetual "turf battle" as to who was in charge. He opined that the two agencies had tacitly acknowledged the disagreement but never really resolved it, noting that HR offices were responsible for developing Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Plans (FEORPs), while EEO offices had responsibility for developing Affirmative Action Plans (AAPs). John observed that FEORPs and AAPs both addressed under-representation and that the idea in both cases was to further diversify applicant pools. I sometimes saw the two different organizations pursuing closely related missions such as these in consciously unilateral ways.

I saw "turf battles" play out at the regional level and equivalent. Many of the disputes that I can recall had to do with the Staffing area. In those days, we were often dealing with under-representation of minorities and women in a wide variety of occupations and grades. We in Personnel, and particularly in Staffing, were routinely being pushed by operating officials to fill positions faster and, at the same time, to increase both the quality and the diversity of candidate pools, since those managers were being evaluated for effectiveness in accomplishing their missions and in addressing areas of under-representation.

In a number of agencies, any time there was under-representation a certificate of eligibles developed by Staffing had to be reviewed by EEO prior to being sent to the selecting official. Often, the EEO office would raise questions, particularly if there were no or few minorities or women on the certificates. Personnel would be watching the days go by and resenting the "fact" that EEO was interfering with their work or questioning their judgment or commitment to affirmative action.

In one agency, my Personnel organization was being measured against other regions in terms of how long it took from the day we received a recruit action to the day we issued a certificate of eligibles to a selecting official, so every time the EEO office held up a referral, we would grind our teeth and mutter unflattering comments under our breath about our EEO counterparts. Sometimes, the tentative selection had to be reviewed by the EEO office before it could be finalized, creating the potential for additional friction between EEO and Personnel.

Another area where the two offices had potential for conflict was EEO complaints versus grievances. Like many employee/labor relations specialists, I was used to analyzing grievances in "black-and-white" terms. For example: Did the grievance meet the definition of a grievance under either agency regulations or a negotiated agreement? Was the grievance filed in a timely manner according to those same guidelines? If the answer to either of those questions was no, I would generally encourage the appropriate management official to reject it, absent special circumstances. We in Personnel often saw EEO’s analyses of employees’ informal discrimination complaints as being less stringent than our reviews of grievances.

As for context, many of us in Personnel were viewed, and viewed ourselves, as advisors to management; our main obligation to employees, as we saw it, was to provide them with factual information about Personnel programs. Some of us tended to view our EEO counterparts with suspicion, figuring that they were not only pro-employee in handling complaints, but sometimes actually encouraged employees to file discrimination complaints or grievances. I never saw any proof of this allegation, but the suspicion was always there, as was the belief that the discrimination complaint process was widely considered to be more pro-employee than the grievance process.

John agreed that there is a widespread impression that HR represents management and that EEO represents employees. He pointed out, however, that the role of both organizations is actually to enforce relevant laws.

My perspective was exclusively that of an HR-type for much of my career, until an agency-wide reorganization at General Services Administration (GSA) moved all of the EEO functions in the field except complaints under Regional Directors of Personnel. With that change, I gained responsibility for managing special emphasis programs, such as the Federal Women’s Program, Black Employment Program, and Hispanic Employment Program, and for supervising the EEO Specialists who managed those programs.

My objective was to smoothly integrate the new EEO functions and people into our office. There had been some strained working relationships (both issue- and personality-driven) on both sides, but the Personnel and EEO sides of the house both made a special effort to understand each other’s responsibilities and perspectives, and slowly but surely I think we began to trust each other and see ourselves as a team.

Having gained some first-hand insight into EEO programs and having solicited some feedback from my new EEO Specialist subordinates as to how they viewed their responsibilities, I actually started to change my attitude – an almost unprecedented occurrence – while developing settlement agreements in conjunction with the EEO Officer at this same agency. I had always been concerned about whether the complaint had been filed in the correct forum (i.e., did it really meet the definition of a discrimination complaint or would it have been more properly filed as a grievance?), while the EEO Officer’s recurring theme was that it didn’t matter — there was clearly a problem that needed to be surfaced and resolved, regardless of forum. Looking first at the issue, and how best to deal with it, not at whose jurisdiction was involved? What a crazy idea! No, it was a very logical one, and I started to keep it very much in mind during these kinds of discussions.

So, how do HR and EEO offices improve their working relationships. For one thing, I think they can get to know each other better, to include demonstrating respect for and a working knowledge of each other’s mission. It is also critically important to develop collaborative relationships between the HR and EEO employees involved in managing or carrying out the functions involved. Part of a famous quote attributed to Roman philosopher Apuleius observes that "Familiarity breeds contempt…" I would argue that familiarity breeds understanding and can help build and maintain working relationships.

If I were back in HR, I would make a special effort to approach my EEO counterpart(s) and try to establish an effective, ongoing working relationship. I would also, in stark contrast with my usual approach, try to spend more time listening than talking.

I see several areas where EEO and HR can complement each other’s efforts. For example, a staffing specialist recruiting for an engineering position and seeking to increase the diversity of candidate pools would likely benefit from soliciting an EEO specialist’s ideas about possible sources of highly qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds. Adding quality and diversity to the workforce obviously benefits not just HR and EEO but the agency as a whole.

I also think the two offices can work together very effectively on the agency’s behalf in resolving EEO complaints. For example, when an agency is attempting to structure a settlement agreement, I think it makes sense to have both the Title VII expertise of the EEO office and the Title V expertise of the HR office at the table.

HR employees can demonstrate respect for EEO’s special emphasis program mission by attending events related to, for example, Black History Month, and HR can gain further credibility with EEO by being actively involved in the planning and/or execution of such events. Employees from EEO can request details to HR, and vice versa, to see what it is really like to walk in the other person’s shoes. And, last but not least, HR employees can ask to attend training in EEO functions and EEO employees can ask to attend HR training. As one purely altruistic example, John and I have recently started co-teaching a class titled "Human Resources Management for EEO Practitioners."

Given the fractious history between HR and EEO in some agencies, as noted earlier, it won’t be easy in some cases to change attitudes, but by consistently demonstrating good faith and the willingness to learn more about the other "side’s" mission and functions, EEO and HR can actually build relationships of trust — and partnerships — in their joint objectives of recruiting and retaining a high-quality and diverse workforce, and resolving issues that arise out of discrimination complaints.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.