Considering the Filing of an EEO Complaint or Grievance? Think Before You Act

When should an employee consider filing an EEO complaint? What steps should an employee take before filing a complaint? What are the considerations in making this decision? In part III of this series, the author examines these issues and offers his advice.

In Part I of this series I took a shot at examining why employees file EEO complaints and grievances, and in Part II I provided advice to managers and supervisors. In this final part, I will offer some thoughts to employees who are considering filing a complaint or grievance.

As supervisors often learn, sometimes to their dismay, employees can contest virtually every decision they make in the workplace. Despite that "opportunity," the overwhelming majority of employees do not file EEO complaints or grievances even once in their career. That doesn’t mean they are always satisfied with the decisions made, or not made, by management, although many good supervisors have excellent working relationships with their subordinates and routinely explain decisions that may affect those employees.

In many cases, employees consider a decision or action to which they object to be a minor irritation in the overall scheme of things. In other cases, offended workers conclude that their "right" to file a grievance or complaint is more than offset by the probability that management will consider them to be "problem employees" and the potential negative effect on their career prospects. Employees often feel that they are at a disadvantage if they are in a dispute with their supervisor, and, indeed, they are, since there is an imbalance of power.

In Part I, I agreed with a knowledgeable reader’s observation 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."

When employees tell me that they are considering filing a complaint or grievance and request advice, I typically ask them if they are prepared to take on the whole agency, which I think is, in essence, what happens. I tell them that it is highly likely that they will feel additional stress every day that their complaint or grievance is "in play," which may ultimately affect their physical and/or mental health. While it is true that employees sometimes win monetary damages in such disputes, I tell them that I think it is a mighty tough way to try to make a buck.

In a 26+ year Federal career as a management advisor, I did observe situations in which I am convinced that the complainant or grievant, despite prevailing on the merits of the dispute, was subsequently considered to be a problem employee. Employees can file retaliation complaints if they feel they have been treated differently, and worse, than co-workers based on their protected activity in filing an initial complaint, but the burden of proof is still on the complainant, who will likely be subject to the same increased stress level that was associated with the initial complaint.

If this observation rings true, and if there is always going to be an imbalance of power in favor of the supervisor/management, what options does an employee have for resolving an issue/concern?

If employees feel strongly enough about a matter to bring it to their supervisor’s attention, I urge them to do so outside the scope of the complaint or grievance process, noting that they can always go through one of those processes if this approach doesn’t work.

What I mean here is that the employee can simply initiate an informal conversation with the supervisor, making clear the issue or concern and what the employee would like to have done about it. I always stress the importance of the employee demonstrating a positive attitude and an open mind.

Take, for example, a pretty common scenario in which an employee was not selected for a competitive promotion that he thought he should have gotten. If that employee goes into the meeting bristling with "attitude" and tells the supervisor "I was easily the best-qualified candidate and I want to know why I wasn’t selected," that official’s reaction is likely to be a defensive one, and she may well assume that any information she gives the employee is likely to be used against her. In such a case, the supervisor is probably going to be unwilling to provide any candid feedback to the employee.

Contrast that approach with one in which the employee goes in and tells his supervisor, "I was disappointed that I wasn’t selected for this promotion and would like your advice on how I can make myself a stronger candidate for future vacancies." In this case, I would argue that the employee’s positive approach has gone a long way toward defusing potential tension and that the supervisor is far more likely to be candid in providing advice to the employee. She might, for example, advise the employee that his resume could be better-written, that he could benefit from additional training and/or education, or that his interview skills could be improved.

No matter what the issue or concern raised by the employee is, if she/he is not satisfied with the supervisor’s response, the employee can always choose to elevate the matter through the chain-of-command. When the employee chooses that course of action, I always recommend that he/she advise the supervisor to whom she/he has been talking of the employee’s intent to elevate the concern.

If the employee takes the matter through the chain-of-command and isn’t satisfied with the result, he/she can choose to pursue the matter through the complaint or grievance process, as appropriate, recognizing that they need to be aware of the time constraints involved.

A couple of final words of advice for employees who have issues or concerns: 1) Never assume that your supervisor is out to get you when the root cause, as I mentioned in Part II, could easily be miscommunication or lack of communication; and 2) If you need advice on how to proceed, or just need to "vent" your concerns, I would encourage you to contact an appropriate EEO or HR official. I noted in Part I that many Bureau of Reclamation employees walked out of John Jones’ office feeling better because the Director of Civil Rights listened carefully to their concerns without judging them. If you don’t have reasonable access to such an official, or if there are trust issues, I would strongly recommend that you talk to a counselor from your agency’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The EAP counselors offer professional assistance while having no ties to your organization.

On occasion, there really isn’t just one issue or concern, but rather a problem in the ongoing working relationship between the employee and the supervisor. If the employee has made good faith efforts to improve the relationship, but to no avail, the best option may be to "vote with their feet," meaning to leave the organization, particularly where the employee is feeling so stressed about the situation that it is adversely affecting their health and/or other aspects of their life. My rationale is that the supervisor is going to officially be in the position of greater power, so if they aren’t able to resolve their differences and those differences are going to cause the employee great and continuing frustration, going somewhere else may make more sense than staying on, even if the employee is satisfied with other aspects of the work environment.

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.