By Dan Gephart, July 5, 2023

On July 26, we debut a FELTG virtual training program aptly titled No Need for Fear: A Guide to Navigating EEO Challenges for Supervisors and Advisors. This course will be taught by FELTG President Deborah J. Hopkins and FELTG’s newest faculty member – Susan Schneider.

The session addresses the EEO issues and challenges that give many supervisors (and their advisors, too) a sense of weariness and dread that could turn bad situations worse.

We’re thrilled to have Susan on the FELTG team. She recently retired from Federal service. During her time at Department of Health and Human Services, which included stints with the National Library of Medicine, the Office on Smoking and Health, and the National Center for Health Statistics, Susan facilitated Department-level listening sessions on Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results and developed a Developmental Assignments Program to combat silos and enhance employee skills.

We caught up with Susan as she worked on her materials for the session.

DG: Why do you think supervisors are so scared of EEO and what is their biggest EEO fear?

SS: Fear is a human response to a threat, either real or perceived. Our threat response does not pass through the reasoning part of our brains. It’s much faster than that. You probably are familiar with “fight or flight” as threat reactions. That model has been updated to “fight, flight or freeze” and even more recently to “fight, flight, freeze or fawn.”

I’ve reflected on “fawn” which means surrender, like a puppy does to a large dog (rolling over, exposing stomach). None of the four reactions is particularly useful, but “fawn” may well be the most counter-productive of all.

So, another way to ask the question is “Why do many supervisors consider EEO a threat?” Reputation, that is, a damaged reputation, is difficult to put right. Even the rumor of EEO issues, whether a formal complaint or an employee implying that they will file, is great gossip! Even if wrongdoing is not proven, reputation will take time and effort to restore. The shield of “confidentiality” about the EEO process inhibits the full airing of issues.

The second threat is time. Responding takes a great deal of time and care, even when documentation is thorough and complete. A first-level supervisor usually has mission-oriented duties (as compared to managerial or administrative) which will be sidelined. Productivity takes a hit, and engagement takes a huge hit.

Then there is fear of the unknown. EEO processes can feel “squishy.” By “squishy,” I mean unclear, and changing depending upon who is involved. The early stages may be less scripted. For example, a complaint could be resolved with a discussion between the second-level supervisor and the employee, followed by a three-way conversation (documented). When the complaint becomes formal, then the stages may be clearer.

There is often a lack of clarity around roles of those involved in EEO processes. In my experience, there can be supervisor, employee, union rep, management (responsible) officer, and employee relations/labor relations (ER/LR) specialist. The latter two represent the agency, not the Supervisor. Starkly put, supervisors may feel they are on their own. Retaining their own counsel may be useful but may be counterproductive.

DG: What actions can supervisors and team leaders take on their own to create an environment where EEO values are accepted?

SS: Demonstrate your support of those values whenever possible. For example, show up at DEIA-related events, including classes and events. If your agency has a mentoring program, consider how your participation can demonstrate your support of EEO values.

Usually, transparency about decisions has a positive effect. In the Federal setting, transparency means sharing as much information about what is happening, what is planned, opportunities for learning and advancement, and so on. As with the EEO complaint process, there’s often a lack of clarity about what can be communicated, what cannot (by policy or rule) and what is at the discretion of management.

To move into a root cause of lack of transparency, trust is foundational. In the work on Strengths-Based Leadership, Tom Rath and Barry Conchie identify four needs of followers. Trust, Hope, Stability and Compassion. Sort of a four-legged, table. More recently, for various reasons, we have a three-legged table. Stability, in the sense of continued employment and reasonable “down time” is no longer guaranteed. [Editor’s note: FELTG offers Strength-based Strategies for Success and other Leadership Training Courses.]

But back to trust. If there is a high level of trust in the organization’s leaders, managers, and supervisors, then most employees will accept a certain lack of transparency, given a simple “I wish I could share more, but I cannot at this time.” Or “I don’t know.” Of course, the statement needs to be true.

More publicly, celebrating a holiday or month (Women’s History, Asian-American, Black History), if well-planned, provides an opportunity for people to tell their stories. The ability to be open about who we are, and be received with an open mind, is the key to belonging. Belonging is fostering a workplace where differences (and commonalities) are celebrated, and it’s an ideal worth aspiring to.

DG: EEO complaints will happen, but many supervisors fall into the trap where their response to the complaint leads to reprisal. How can supervisors “avoid” this trap?

SS: My first thought was that reprisal meant “treating someone differently” and that we shouldnot treat a complainant differently. But isn’t a supervisor supposed to change their behavior if EEO matters are proven, or whatever the outcome? So, does that mean treating all their employees the same? What about honoring differences and improving belonging? If we take particular care and caution toward an employee during or after a complaint, how is that not freezing or fawning? Turns out, retaliation refers to “treating employees badly.”

Let’s take a pause and consider how we need to help our human brains. The part that isn’t the “reptile brain” (although that term is not used by neurolinguists). A thought that can bring me to tears is “Between stimulus and response there is a space.” That is from Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. The full quote is “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Part of our humanity, our humanness, is pausing and finding our sense of the right thing to do or say. Sometimes a graceful “I need some time to think about that. Can we talk later today?” And then, of course, talk.

When reprisal, or appearance of reprisal, is a known risk (which should be acknowledged, not ignored), the best approach is learning the perspective of a person familiar with the issues. The confidentiality constraints around EEO may well inhibit receiving another perspective. Talking with a trusted colleague may not be possible. One option is to use a coach, who is bound by a confidentiality agreement.

DG: What can a supervisor do to help rebuild team morale after a complaint is filed and, eventually, resolved?

SS: The team is not supposed to know about the complaint! However, this question implies that they do, A team member’s unhappiness or discomfort may be apparent to the team members and affected other team members. Perhaps the supervisor has been less available to staff during the EEO process, thereby affecting morale. A supervisor may describe changes being considered or implemented without a direct link to the EEO process.

I advise avoiding the term “morale” with the team. Consider forward-looking concept/words such as how each person’s skills support the team mission, how individuals like to be acknowledged or rewarded, whether each person has a preferred pronoun. (Use your own pronoun. There’s a positive effect for people who find meaning in this, plus your organization may have an applicable policy.)

For the whole group, I advocate development-related sessions, with a skilled facilitator. Issues of trust and accountability. Consider doing an assessment such as Strengthsfinder or DISC, which can be fun and create insights, with professional debriefs. If policy allows, require attendance.

During one-on-one meetings, open the conversation to issues instead of focusing on tasks. Allow time for employees to prepare answers to questions such as:

  • What would you like to do more of?
  • What would you like to do less of?

Each quarter, with timing other than performance reviews, conduct stay interviews. Ask questions such as “How do your colleagues treat you?” and “How does management treat you?”

Consider open-ended follow-up questions, such as “When were you treated with respect?” Some supervisors are comfortable conducting stay interviews, others benefit from a script. Listen, and respond later, with actions that are within your control or influence. Be forthright about what is NOT in your control. Another strategy for doing stay interviews is having a staffer in HR or Planning conduct the interviews. This approach allows for aggregating the responses and then communicating changes made.

Ask other questions related to engagement (a term broader than “morale”) including:

  • What opportunities would you like to have?
  • What would you like to learn here?
  • What skills do you have that aren’t being used?

Some supervisors are comfortable with conducting stay interviews, others benefit from a script. Another strategy for doing stay interviews is having a staffer in HR or Planning conduct the interviews. Listen, and respond later, with actions that are within your control or influence. Be forthright about what is NOT in your control.

To address engagement, advocate for developmental assignments or details or committee work outside the team. Ensure the selection process is transparent. In a sense, you are subtly “calling the bluff” of the complainant. Endure the consequences if it doesn’t play out the way you’d like. Wise words from Covey’s 7 Habits for Highly Effective People: “You can choose your actions, but you cannot choose the consequences.”

[Register for No Need for Fear: A Guide to Navigating EEO Challenges for Supervisors and Advisors by July 10 to get Early Bird pricing.] [email protected]

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