Equal Employment Opportunity:

SSA Region X's Changes to Its EEO Process Illustrate Need for Agencywide Procedures

GAO-03-604: Published: Jul 16, 2003. Publicly Released: Jul 16, 2003.

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Employees at the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Region X--which covers Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington--expressed concern about the Region's equal employment opportunity (EEO) process for employment discrimination complaints. GAO was asked to (1) provide information for fiscal years 1997 through 2001 on the composition of the Region X workforce and for personnel actions such as promotions, awards, and adverse actions by EEO group; (2) describe the EEO complaint process in Region X and any changes to it; (3) assess whether the Region's process is consistent with federal regulations and related guidance; and (4) assess the familiarity with the EEO process of the Region's employees and their attitude toward it.

In a geographic area where minorities represent a small portion of the civilian workforce (about 13.5 percent), Region X generally had a higher percentage of each minority group, except for American Indian and Alaska Natives. Moreover, the percentage of minority employees in Region X had increased from about 19 percent in fiscal year 1997 to about 27 percent in fiscal year 2001. Women represented a much higher proportion of SSA's workforce than of the civilian workforce. Differences among racial/ethnic and gender groups for most of the personnel actions reviewed were not statistically significant. For fiscal years 1997 and 1998, current and former Region X EEO counselors described a process that mirrored the informal stage of the required federal sector complaint process. In fiscal year 1999, Region X changed its EEO process, so that EEO counselors were no longer allowed to talk with managers but were required to submit their questions in writing. In addition, managers were encouraged to routinely have an attorney from the Office of the General Counsel (OGC) review their written responses before these responses were provided to the EEO counselors. After the changes were in place for about a year, SSA headquarters officials held discussions with Region X officials to explain that having written inquiries and OGC involved in the informal EEO process was not consistent with the intent of resolving issues informally. Beginning early in fiscal year 2001, neither written EEO counselor queries to managers nor OGC involvement was required in the informal process. Region X's former use of written queries and OGC involvement were counter to the spirit of EEO regulations and their related guidance, which emphasize the informal nature of precomplaint counseling. In doing its work at Region X, GAO found that SSA had issued EEO handbooks for managers and employees, but the handbooks do not contain agency-specific procedures on how EEO counselors are to process complaints of discrimination. Agency-specific procedures are required by EEO regulations. Absent such procedures, components of an agency can use different procedures, as illustrated by Region X, resulting in employees across the country being treated differently. To gain an understanding of how familiar the Region's employees are with the EEO process and their willingness to participate in it, GAO surveyed all of the Region's employees. Most Region X employees reported having received or seen within the last 2 years written materials about EEO regulations and how to contact regional EEO counselors. Also, almost half the employees reported a willingness to participate in counseling or to file a formal EEO complaint if they believed they had been discriminated against. However, a sizeable portion of employees--about 40 percent--reported being unwilling or uncertain about becoming involved with the processes established for handling EEO complaints.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of SSA should direct the Regional Commissioner of Region X to review the statistically significant differences we found in adverse actions and awards to determine why they occurred and what, if any, corrective action is needed.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: On May 17, 2005, the SSA liaison's office e-mailed a recommendations summary indicating that SSA considered the recommendation closed; however, no specific action had been taken.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of SSA should adopt standard operating procedures for EEO counselors that include step-by-step procedures for processing complaints of discrimination so that counselors and others involved in the process across the country know what to do and employees face the same process everywhere.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our July 2003 report on equal employment opportunity (EEO) in the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Region X (i.e., covering Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) identified that in fiscal year 1999, Region X changed its EEO process, so that EEO counselors were no longer allowed to talk with managers during the informal stage of the EEO complaint process but were required to submit their questions in writing. In addition, managers were encouraged to routinely have an attorney from the Office of General Counsel (OGC) review their written responses before the responses were provided to the EEO counselors. Our report noted that these changes were counter to the spirit of EEO regulations and their related guidance, which emphasize the informal nature of counseling. Beginning in early fiscal year 2001, Region X no longer required written EEO counselor queries or OGC involvement in the informal stage of the EEO complaint process. We recommended that the Commissioner of SSA adopt standard operating procedures for EEO counselors that include step-by-step procedures for processing complaints of discrimination so that counselors and others involved in the process across the country know what to do and employees face the same process everywhere. In August 2005, SSA provided training that was mandatory for all of its EEO counselors and was delivered via interactive video teletraining (IVT) format. The training, which was in line with the intent of our recommendations, included how counselors should speak with the aggrieved, alleged harassers, and witnesses; the role of the counselor in explaining the option of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) when an individual seeks EEO counseling; and when counselors must exclude ADR as an option.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of SSA should direct the Regional Commissioner of Region X to establish a plan to (1) enhance the Region's EEO environment to increase trust and (2) measure the plan's effectiveness, such as with a periodic survey of employees.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Our July 2003 report on equal employment opportunity (EEO) in the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Region X (i.e., covering Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) identified that in fiscal year 1999, Region X changed its EEO process so that EEO counselors were no longer allowed to talk with managers during the informal stage of the EEO complaint process but were required to submit their questions in writing. In addition, managers were encouraged to routinely have an attorney from the Office of General Counsel (OGC) review their written responses before the responses were provided to the EEO counselors. These changes were counter to the spirit of EEO regulations and their related guidance, which emphasize the informal nature of counseling. Beginning in early fiscal year 2001, neither written EEO counselor queries nor OGC involvement were required in the informal stage of the EEO complaint process. We recommended that the Commissioner of SSA direct the Regional Commissioner of Region X to establish a plan to 1) enhance the Region's EEO environment to increase trust and 2) measure the plan's effectiveness, such as with a periodic survey of employees. In response to our recommendation, the Regional Commissioner of Region X sent a letter to all employees under his direct authority. To determine what could be done to further enhance the EEO process, SSA began a national dialogue among the 10 regional commissioners to address diversity topics at the regional and national levels. According to SSA, the Regional Commissioner of Region X serves as the lead for the national dialogue among regional commissioners to address diversity topics at the regional and national levels. Furthering the national dialogue on diversity topics, in 2006, the Regional Commissioner of Region X sent an e-mail to his colleagues informing them of enhancements to the SSA Diversity Library Web site, which is a compendium of information resources on celebrating workforce diversity.

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