March 19, 2019
When former Merit Systems Protection Board Chair Susan Tsui Grundmann started her new job as Executive Director of the Office of Compliance, quite a few people didn’t know what the OOC was, or what it did.
That soon changed.
Grundmann barely had enough time to learn the best spot for coffee near the Capitol before the OOC found itself in the spotlight. The #MeToo Movement had broken out, and Congress was not immune to claims of sexual harassment. The OOC, which operates with a staff of attorneys and other professionals to ensure a fair, safe, and accessible workplace for 30,000 legislative branch employees, was suddenly very busy – and getting a lot of attention.
“During a five-month period, our tiny staff had been tested, weighed and found not to be lacking,” Grundmann said. “Since October 2017, our staff personally trained over 1,500 employees in the House and Senate alone, not all at once, but in ones, twos, and tens.”
And it’s no longer the Office of Compliance. The agency has since rebranded itself as the Office of Congressional Workplace Rights. Along with the new name, the OCWR received new mission and vision statements after the Congressional Accountability Act Reform Act was passed late last year and goes into effect in June. Per Grundmann, it “serves as the EEOC and the FLRA for the legislative branch. We also perform certain functions of the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice for the legislative community.”
Here’s more from our interview.
DG: New name, new mission and new vision statement. How else has the office changed?
SG: Our jurisdiction has been expanded to cover new employing offices, like certain congressional commissions, and additional categories of employees, such as unpaid staff, including interns, fellows, and detailees. Our ADR process no longer includes mandatory counseling, a mandatory “cooling off” period before the employee can proceed either to an ADR hearing or court, and mandatory mediation, although mediation remains optional if both parties agree. We have a new step in the ADR process, which involves preliminary review by a hearing officer within 30 days after a claim is filed.
All employing offices have new posting and training requirements. For the first time ever, we will conduct a climate survey of the entire legislative branch with specific focus on respondents’ attitudes toward sexual harassment. We also have new reporting requirements. Perhaps what has captured the greatest media attention is that Members of Congress and employing offices must reimburse the treasury account for certain types of awards and settlements.
DG: So what hasn’t changed?
SG: The Reform Act maintains the OCWR’s essential functions and preserves our statutory mandates, which include statutory directive to provide an ADR process for legislative branch employees; to enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Americans with Disabilities Act with regard to public accessibility, and the Federal Services Labor-Management Relations Act; to provide recommendations to Congress regarding changes to the CAA; and to educate and inform the legislative community and the public regarding the CAA and the Reform Act. Perhaps most importantly, the Reform Act maintains the impartial, non-partisan nature of our Office.
DG: How are you able to handle all the added responsibilities with such a small staff?
SG: While we have been allotted additional FTE and funding, we have a great team at OCWR. We have identified statutory changes which require action and have in-house teams with timelines and deadlines, the most significant of which is to amend our current rules to reflect changes mandated in the Reform Act, such as adding the new step of the preliminary review by a hearing officer in the first 30 days. We even have a single individual whose primary task is to keep track of every team, note every benchmark, and to ensure that we adhere to every deadline. The limited timeframe is a challenge yet it is an exciting time for us as we have been given the rare opportunity to create a new structure and process. We are looking forward to meeting this challenge.
DG: You were charged with providing widespread training on harassment to Congress. Through this process, did you have any revelations on harassment training?
SG: We saw a triple-digit percent increase in the number of requests for in-person anti-sexual harassment training; a triple-digit percent spike in the number of staffers enrolling in our online training modules; twice as many visits to the OCWR’s online information about how to report sexual harassment; a 12 percent surge in the number of people subscribing to OCWR social media platforms to receive updates on rights and responsibilities designed to protect workers against sexual harassment. And posters notifying employees of their rights under the CAA, which were, at the time, non-mandatory in the legislative branch, flying off our shelf.
DG: What do you think agencies in the Executive branch could or should do differently to get a handle on widespread harassment?
SG: Training is only the floor. But running the same training over and over again cannot change culture. To remain relevant and fresh, training must be continually revised and tailored to the specific environment of each workplace. We have found that in-person training works the best, especially if we work directly with the employing office and develop scenarios that commonly occur in a particular office.
There are other steps employers could take: Develop a zero-tolerance policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment, and retaliation that employees know and understand. That policy should describe procedures for reporting such behavior and designate a particular individual, and an alternative in the event the designee is the accused, who is charged with receiving complaints and providing a timely investigation of the allegations. Even if the allegations prove unfounded, the designee should contact the employee so that the employee will know that the claims were taken seriously and not brushed aside. If the allegations have merit, the accused must be given due process and held accountable. In the end, cultural change comes from the top, from both executive and senior leadership, and from management, who adopt and implement the organizational mission and vision.
DG: Hopefully, we’ll have a quorum soon at the MSPB. Do you have any advice for new MSPB members?
SG: Not having a quorum for over two years has done substantial damage to the MSPB’s ability to reach resolution and closure. Almost 2,000 PFRs await resolution. That number is certain to grow. In some cases, justice delayed can be viewed as justice denied. You have seen these stories in the media. [Editor’s note: FELTG has written about the issue here and here.]
My advice to new members is to trust your instincts but be guided by the exemplary career staff at MSPB. There are many, many talented employees who have dedicated their careers to protecting and advancing the merit principles. Many have seen it all and know what works and doesn’t work in the long run. Be inclusive when it comes informational gathering, including external stakeholders. To the extent possible, be inclusive of decision-making so that there is a shared ownership of choices made. It is a great agency filled with those who model the merit principles in their ever day life. I wish the new Board members the best as they embark on this venture. They will garner great experience and satisfaction from their time with the agency.