HR and EEO: Why We Can Be Friends (Part Two)

Human resources and equal employment opportunity offices are often at odds. In this article, the author delves into the most common miscommunication between the two offices and how to address the problem.

This article is a follow-up to part one of  "HR & EEO: Why Can’t We Be Friends?"

In advance of my presentation at the LRP-sponsored 2nd annual HR & EEO in the Federal Workplace Conference in New York City in mid-April, I was asked to respond to e-mail questions, such as "What is the most common miscommunication between HR and EEO Offices?"

In my experience miscommunication between the human resources (HR) and equal employment opportunity (EEO) offices often resulted from inadequate understanding about each other’s functions and responsibilities, the negative reputation each office often has with the other (i.e., "EEO is more concerned about diversity than qualifications" or "HR believes filling vacancies quickly is more important than ensuring the diversity of applicant pools"), and the guarding of perceived "territory" in functions that appear to overlap.

Since my perspective was that of a career-long HR-type, I sought the EEO point of view from my friend John Jones, former Director of Civil Rights for the Bureau of Reclamation, who believes that the processing of discrimination complaints, and the differing perceptions of the roles and responsibilities of both offices, probably causes the most miscommunication (which John preferred to characterize as "misunderstanding") between HR and EEO.

Example #1: When agency management is considering what action to take in response to a discrimination complaint, there is a widely held perception that HR officials typically advise management to "stonewall" (i.e., "We didn’t do anything wrong and we’re not going to settle"), while EEO officials typically recommend that management settle the case, regardless of the merit of the complaint.

The issue is not so much the positions argued by both offices but their perceived motivation for taking those stances, meaning that HR staff members are often viewed as management advocates while EEO practitioners may be seen as employee advocates in general and complainant advocates in particular.

In reality, as John and I both see it, HR is responsible to management for ensuring that Title V – or such agency-specific laws as the National Security Personnel System (NSPS), covering Department of Defense components – and its implementing regulations are followed by the agency and EEO has the same responsibility to management with regard to Title VII.

Fixing the Problem: I would strongly advocate the approach that John and his HR counterparts at Reclamation’s headquarters took; they would sit down together after analyzing complaints and share information about what they were each likely to recommend to management. John pointed out that while such meetings didn’t always lead to agreement, they did lead to an understanding on the part of EEO as to HR’s rationale, and vice versa, and the two offices sometimes found that their recommendations were actually quite similar or could be resolved before they approached the responsible management official(s).

John observed that virtually all discrimination complaints are based on HR-related issues, so it only makes sense for EEO and HR to work together collaboratively in addressing complaints rather than going their separate ways, which has often happened.

Example #2: In my experience, there have also been many misunderstandings between HR and EEO with regard to the staffing process. While both organizations have responsibility for promoting diversity and correcting underutilization, the HR component is almost always subject to timeliness measures as well.

The EEO office has the right and responsibility to raise questions at any stage of the staffing process, and I doubt that many HR offices have any problem with the concept, but they do typically object to anything that is perceived as slowing the staffing process, which many managers already believe is unacceptably slow, including questions from the EEO office.

Fixing the Problem: It would likely help if HR better understood EEO’s role in the staffing process and EEO acknowledged the reality that operating officials almost always place great pressure on HR to fill vacancies fast. By working together closely in advance of vacancies to go over strategic recruitment plans, identify areas of underutilization, take advantage of existing contacts that the EEO office frequently has, such as with Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU) and Hispanic Association of Colleges & Universities (HACUs), etc., both offices – and the agency – would benefit.

In responding to the question as to what steps can both sides of the aisle take toward resolving any issues that have been long ingrained and institutionalized in their respective organizations, I opined that some EEO staff members feel that there has been a power imbalance – in favor of HR – ever since EEO offices came into existence. Agency management already had a relationship with HR offices by that time, and EEO had to try to elbow its way to the table.

As for "best practices," I talked to Gordon Schisler, EPA’s Deputy Civil Rights Officer, who said that in EPA the Director of HR for the agency invited the Director of Civil Rights to take a "seat at the table" at the HR Council, a Senior Executive Level organization. Gordon noted that the new HR Director has also been an active participant in special events sponsored by the EEO office, and that HR employees sit on EEO workgroups and vice versa. Those kinds of proactive steps have led to an improved working relationship between the two offices.

I also think that employees on each "side" can go the "extra mile" in offering to work with the other office. If both HR and EEO sit back and wait for the other to make the first move, it may never happen, to the detriment of both offices – and the agency.

In terms of enhancing the understanding of each office as to what the other does, and why, John and I think that further education on both "sides" is part of the solution. That’s why he and I recently started co-teaching classes on Human Resources Management for EEO Practitioners. Despite the presence of both EEO and HR professionals in the same classroom for five days, there was not a single verbal altercation and the participants asked for each other’s phone numbers and e-mail addresses. But the key is not how, where or from whom HR and EEO staffers gain additional information and insight about their counterpart organization but the fact that they do so.

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.