Why Do Employees File Discrimination Complaints and Grievances? Advice to Managers and Supervisors

Why do employees file discrimination complaints? Here are some of the most common reasons and suggestions for supervisors that can cut down on the number of complaints.

I mentioned in Part I that, in my opinion, employees often file EEO complaints and grievances based on actions taken, or not taken, by management. For example, managers and supervisors fill vacant positions; make selections for permanent promotions; detail and temporarily promote employees to other positions; assign performance ratings; and approve training and awards.

My List of Common Causes of EEO Complaints (and Grievances)

  • Lack of information or misunderstanding ("Failure to communicate")
  • Perceptions of inequitable treatment
  • Employee concerns not addressed by supervisor
  • Unannounced or unexplained changes in policies or practices
  • Resentments and overall low morale
  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Perceptions of bias or stereotyping

"Failure to communicate." One of the most famous movie quotes comes from the classic 1967 prison chain-gang movie "Cool Hand Luke." The rebellious title character, played by Paul Newman, who keeps trying to escape and is beaten with increasing severity when he is recaptured, is told by the prison’s Captain that "What we have here is failure to communicate…" I would speculate that the root cause of the overwhelming majority of complaints and grievances is some form of miscommunication or a lack of communication.

Perceptions of inequitable treatment. If an employee feels that he/she is being treated differently, and worse, than co-workers, that employee may suspect that the perceived inequitable treatment is based on such factors as race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, religion, age, or disability.

Employee concerns not addressed by supervisor. I’m sorry to say I was guilty of this "sin" on multiple occasions. I eventually realized that if an employee brings a matter of concern to a supervisor’s attention, she/he actually expects a response, and in a timely manner at that.

Unannounced or unexplained changes in policies or practices. If one works in any bureaucracy, including the Federal Government, long enough, he/she is very likely to encounter this situation. In an organization where little trust exists between an employee and a supervisor, the employee may wonder if such unannounced or unexplained changes in policies or practices are related to illegal discrimination.

Resentments and overall low morale. I think there is still room for disagreement among management theorists as to the link, if any, between morale and productivity, but my experience tells me that if morale goes downhill in an office it won’t be long until productivity follows. Accordingly, I think it is in the best interest of managers and supervisors to establish and maintain a high level of morale at all times.

Perceptions of bias or stereotyping. Suppose, for example, that the women in an office are expected to make coffee, plan office gatherings, etc. If so, they may feel that they are the victims of stereotyping. As for bias, a brand-new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that three in 10 Americans acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice, so it would not be surprising for employees to perceive bias in their workplace. Along similar lines, about two-thirds of women who responded to a recent survey by the Financial Women’s Association reported feeling that gender played a role in holding them back.

Avoiding an Employee Grievance

An employee has the statutory right to file an EEO complaint, and can file a grievance under either a negotiated grievance procedure (for bargaining unit employees covered by a specific collective bargaining agreement), or the agency’s administrative grievance procedure (for everyone else).

As stated in a source that I have been unable to identify, "There will always be instances where, through misunderstanding or lack of communication, disagreements between a supervisor and an employee will surface. A grievance may even occur as a result of a personality conflict, or plain stubbornness on the part of the supervisor, the employee, or both. The supervisor’s objective should be to resolve a complaint or dissatisfaction before it becomes a grievance."

One way of doing that is, I believe, for supervisors to have a genuine "open door" policy, meaning that they clearly and consistently welcome candid employee input of any kind, even when such candor includes implied or overt criticism of the supervisor. Sometimes supervisors talk about having an open door policy but make it obvious by their actions that they really don’t want to be bothered or don’t want to hear any "whining or complaining." For example, a friend once worked for a supervisor who dealt with ongoing employee concerns about their stressful work environment by banning the use of the word "stress." Simple? Yes. Effective? I don’t think so.

If employees don’t think they can talk to you, they may start talking about you, and not necessarily in positive terms, so if an employee wants to meet with you, I would suggest that you schedule that meeting sooner rather than later, at a time that is mutually convenient and will allow you to focus completely on what the employee is trying to tell you.

I strongly endorse the practice often associated with retired General Electric Chief Executive Officer Jack Welsh – "management by walking about." Most supervisors, particularly first-line supervisors, also have non-supervisory responsibilities, and typically have to do a juggling act to get both pieces of the job accomplished. I had non-supervisory responsibilities, including special projects, throughout my career as an HR supervisor and manager, and I sometimes forgot that, as a supervisor, getting work done through my subordinates was my highest priority. Consequently, I did not get out of my office as often as I should have. When I finally started getting out on a regular basis, I not only found it easier to build rapport and credibility with my employees, but also picked up "intelligence" which allowed me to deal with small problems before they became large ones.

The "bottom line" is that what you as a supervisor can do to prevent or mitigate complaints and grievances is to manage your unit in a fair, equitable and respectful manner, and to demonstrate your willingness to hear, and respond to, any employee concerns. Along those lines, I continue to believe it is critically important for a supervisor to build and maintain a relationship of trust with her/his employees. It has been my experience that a relationship of trust can survive good-faith disagreements over individual issues.

If a complaint or grievance is filed, I think both sides should make every reasonable effort to resolve the matter at the earliest stage. Generally speaking, the longer a grievance or complaint is unresolved and the farther up the system the matter progresses, the more difficult it becomes to resolve, as positions on both sides tend to harden and factions develop in the work unit, with some employees supporting management and others supporting the employee. By the time the dispute is finally settled, the working relationship between the supervisor and the employee may be broken beyond repair, and morale and productivity in the unit are likely to have been adversely affected.

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.