Why Do Employees File Discrimination Complaints and Grievances? (Part I)

Why do employees file EEO complaints? Here are some of the reasons.

In response to the second article about my perception of the relationship between Human Resources (HR) and Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), “Why We Can Be Friends,” there were some very thoughtful, and thought-provoking, comments from readers, as usual. One which really caught my eye was from a “Retired Treasury” employee who had served as both a Personnel Officer and an EEO investigator, thus having worked “both sides of the street.”

The objective of this particular article is not to detail the process of filing a discrimination complaint or grievance but to theorize as to why employees file EEO complaints or grievances. In answering my own question, I’m going to go way out on a limb here and opine that it is largely due to actions taken, or not taken, by management. Other possible areas of concern might include perceived problems with co-workers, customers, etc. But what causes some employees to formalize their concerns by filing a complaint or grievance?

The “Retired Treasury” employee stated that “In my experience, most EEO Complainants pursue EEO complaints because they 1) are desperate for someone to listen to them, 2) have no other options to voice a concern about a workplace problem, or 3) are chronic complainers and EEO will ‘listen’ to anyone about virtually anything.'”

I, too, have worked “both sides of the street,” serving as a Personnel Officer during my Federal career and as an EEO investigator, and counselor, during my second career as a consultant and trainer. My experience very much squares with that described by the “Retired Treasury” employee.

More specifically, I agree with the observations that most employees who pursue EEO complaints (and grievances) are “desperate for someone to listen to them” and feel that they “have no other options to voice a concern about a workplace problem.”

I had some sense of that from reviewing EEO complaints and grievances in my various HR roles, but my subsequent experience as a contract EEO investigator and counselor and my discussions with employees in the course of conducting HR- and EEO-related training sessions has solidified my belief that employees’ feelings of desperation are major factors in their decision to file a complaint or grievance. I often describe this feeling in training classes as follows: “I felt as if my back was against the wall and there was nothing I could do except file a complaint.” Typically, employees would say something like they had raised an issue(s) with their supervisor, often more than once, and either he/she didn’t get back to them at all, didn’t get back to them in a timely manner, or didn’t appear to take their concerns seriously.

The “Retired Treasury” employee also alluded to “chronic complainers.” That reference, too, is consistent with my experience. Many of my HR colleagues and I have exchanged “war stories” about what we perceived to be chronic complainers, and I have had many similar discussions with EEO colleagues. These chronic complainers seem to be permanently disgruntled about one thing or another and tend to make use of the complaint and/or grievance system again and again.

I also think that some employees try to “game” the complaint and/or grievance system; for example, I have observed situations in which I believe an employee became aware of a pending agency disciplinary action and quickly filed an EEO complaint, so that when the disciplinary action was actually issued it would look as if the discipline was taken in reprisal for the protected activity of filing a complaint. However, in my experience the overwhelming majority of employees who filed EEO complaints or grievances did so because they felt they had a legitimate concern which management had failed to address. Even when management considers an employee complaint or grievance to be “frivolous,” and the “reasonable person” described in U.S. Supreme Court decisions might agree, the employee clearly sees it differently.

Finally, the “Retired Treasury” employee ventured the opinion that “…HR is often perceived as non-responsive to and/or disinterested in employee problems,” further observing that “EEO will ‘listen’ to anyone about virtually anything.'” I agree that HR offices in many agencies have been reduced in numbers to the point that remaining staff is hard-pressed to keep up with such fundamental tasks as announcing vacancies, which may account for perceptions that they are non-responsive or disinterested in employee problems, but I also think troubled employees sometimes avoid going to HR because they see that office as an arm of management.

If EEO is willing to “listen to anyone about virtually anything,” I think that’s a very good thing and that it’s very consistent with EEO’s role. I offer as “evidence” the role my friend John Jones, who I have referenced in previous articles, used to play. Fellow FedSmith.com author Phil Varnak and I were John’s teammates for years on a softball team which played games in the early evening at the Denver Federal Center. We never knew if John was going to make it to the games on time because, in his capacity as Director of Civil Rights for the Bureau of Reclamation, he spent countless hours talking to employees about their job-related concerns.

John, too, had worked “both sides of the street,” having been a Personnel Officer for two different agencies before going into EEO, and recognized that many troubled employees just need to find someone within the organization to whom they can “vent” their frustrations. John’s “open door” policy included phone calls and he would talk to anyone who contacted him – for as long as they wanted to talk. Preventing complaints wasn’t his specific objective in those conversations, but I am convinced that many potential complaints didn’t get filed because employees with work-related concerns had the chance to talk with someone who was willing to listen carefully to their “story” without judging them.

In the next two articles of this three-part series, I’ll offer my opinion as to what, if anything, management can do to prevent such complaints from being filed and provide suggestions to employees on how they can potentially resolve issues/concerns short of litigation.

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.