By Erica Hall and Krish Das
Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations, parts of Articles 1 and 2 state, “All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as color, race, sex, language, religion.”
The Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century was a crucial turning point in U.S. history. This protest movement resulted in significant legislative actions such as the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC ensures equality of opportunity by enforcing federal legislation prohibiting discrimination in employment.
Federal laws concerning workplace discrimination are enforced by federal agencies that receive guidance from the EEOC. At the Department of State, the Office of Civil Rights (S/OCR) serves as the entity that works to prevent employment discrimination and has oversight of the Department’s equal employment opportunity (EEO) program. S/OCR also manages the EEO administrative process for the Department that includes protections from employment discrimination based on one’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), national origin, age (40 and older), disability (physical and mental), genetic information, and reprisal for prior EEO activity or opposition to illegal discrimination.
In a recent webinar hosted by S/OCR, most participants were unaware of the basics regarding the EEO process and expressed interest in learning more. Key questions included “What is an EEO counselor and what are their duties?” “How does one become an EEO counselor?” and “Does every post need to have an EEO counselor?” According to the EEOC, an “EEO counselor” refers to any agency or contracted employee who, serving as a neutral party, provides aggrieved individuals with their rights and obligations under EEO laws, gathers limited data, and may attempt an informal resolution where an Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) is not elected, pursuant to Federal Sector Equal Opportunity Complaint Processing Regulations 29 C.F.R.§ 1614. An ADR is a process in which a neutral third party assists the disputants in reaching an amicable resolution through the use of various techniques.
Each post or office does not need to have an assigned EEO counselor, and it is a common misconception that counselors only serve the post where they work. As employees often do not feel comfortable using the counselor at their own post, S/OCR routinely assigns counselors from different locations to assist.
To serve as an EEO counselor, one must be nominated by their mission, bureau, or the office they serve. They must also complete the Basic EEO Counselor Training (PT171) to qualify as an EEO counselor after being nominated. The nomination process is competitive, and not all nominations will be approved by S/OCR.
“I have been an EEO counselor for four years, and it remains one of the most meaningful roles I hold in the Department,” said Embassy Banjul Management Officer Anne Dudte. “One of my biggest rewards is working with local employee EEO liaisons and teaching them about the protected bases, the counseling process, and other EEO principles such confidentiality and neutrality. Because these concepts are not law or even belief in many countries that I have worked in, it is even more important for us to build trust within our embassies and consulates around the world.”
Resolving complaints of discrimination is the primary goal of S/OCR’s EEO counselor program. An EEO counselor’s role in attempting resolution, even if the parties do not ultimately agree on a solution, assists clear and open communication of the issues and gives parties a chance to better understand and work with each other.
“I appreciate the opportunity to be an EEO counselor because it gives me the chance to help my colleagues,” said Bureau of Diplomatic Security Special Agent Lauren M. Roberts. “While I don’t represent them, I’m able to help them understand the EEO process and navigate a sometimes difficult and stressful situation.”
The EEO process consists of two stages—the informal and formal processes. The informal EEO process consists of EEO counseling, conducted by an EEO counselor. An aggrieved person must begin the informal EEO process within 45 calendar days of an alleged discriminatory act or within 45 calendar days of becoming aware of an alleged discriminatory act. This can be done by contacting an EEO counselor or S/OCR to request EEO counseling. The purpose of EEO counseling is to attempt early and informal resolution of an allegation of discrimination.
If the informal process has not resolved the discrimination allegation, then the EEO counselor issues a “Notice of Right to File a Discrimination Complaint” and the individual may then elect to file a formal complaint of discrimination. The formal complaint must be filed in writing with S/OCR within 15 calendar days of receiving the “Notice of Right to File a Discrimination Complaint.” The purpose of the formal EEO process is to determine whether discrimination occurred. The work done by the EEO counselor during counseling plays a vital role in ensuring prompt and efficient processing of the formal complaint.
ADR is available during both the informal and formal EEO processes. ADR describes various approaches to resolving conflict to avoid the cost, delay, and unpredictability of the traditional adjudicatory processes, while simultaneously improving workplace communication and morale. The primary ADR technique used at the Department is mediation.
“People-to-people conflicts are some of the most stressful and emotional encounters anyone ever experiences at work, and these problems can spill over into the wider community, negatively impacting others if problems are left to fester,” said Embassy Abuja’s Deputy General Services Officer Marsha Lance. “It has been empowering and rewarding to guide people through a process that works to heal those breaches. Each case is different, as different as the people involved, but you do learn to let the program guide you toward resolution at the lowest level of agreement possible. I know that I have benefitted from this training program personally, and as a direct result, have become a better officer. I would encourage anyone interested to see if opportunities to serve as a counselor are needed in your organization.”
While displaying traits of empathy, objectivity, perceptiveness, and integrity, an EEO counselor’s role is to try and provide an environment for open dialogue leading to an informal resolution before the filing of a formal complaint. They truly help further the mission of S/OCR, which is to propagate fairness, equity, and inclusion at the Department.
For questions regarding the EEO process, employees can contact S/OCR.
Erica Hall is acting chief of intake and resolution in the Office of Civil Rights. Krish Das is the communications officer in the Office of Civil Rights.