Say What?

About the author: Marcus Peacock is EPA’s Deputy Administrator.

Last week Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House. This reminded me of an encounter a friend of mine, Neil, had with Pope John Paul II several years ago. Neil and his boss entered the meeting room and approached His Holiness. A cleric standing behind the Pope quietly said, “Kneel.” “Hello,” answered Neil. “Kneel!” said his boss, shooting a glance at my friend. “What?” exclaimed Neil, shooting a glance back at his boss.

Sometimes we mean to say something but people hear something different. Sometimes that can get us into trouble.

As a young manager I occasionally asked job applicants if they were married or had kids. It seemed a good way to get to know the applicants better. After doing a joint interview with a colleague, she strongly objected to this. “That has nothing to do with their qualifications for the job,” she said, “Try putting yourself in their place.” It took me a long time to figure out she was right. The question I thought I was asking was not always the question people heard.

To do our job well, we need a comfortable, welcoming workplace. One way we measure whether EPA has such a workplace is by counting the number of EEO complaints employees file each year. “EEO” stands for Equal Employment Opportunity. Any EPA employee who feels they have been discriminated against because of their gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, disability, etc. can seek corrective action by filing an EEO complaint. Of course, not all complaints are bona fide and not everyone who could file a complaint does, but the change in the number of complaints is a crude measure of how well people are being treated in the workplace.

Here is our record over the past several years:

chart showing Number of Equal Employment Opportunity Complaints: 2001, 85; 2002, 104; 2003, 74; 2004, 71; 2005, 69; 2006, 76; 2007, 64.

First, you should know that EPA has one of the lowest “complaints per employee” rates in government (it appears only NASA is lower), although we think we can do better. Second, we have a low rate due to a significant drop in EEO complaints between 2002 and 2003 that we’ve been able to sustain, although it’s been pretty flat since then. When I examined this data a year ago with the Office of Civil Rights our questions were, “What caused the drop?” and “How could we make it happen again?”

We believe that drop happened because in 2002 every EPA senior manager attended mandatory EEO training. We also believe that if we repeat the mandatory EEO training, it will drop again. So the Administrator has determined that every senior manager at EPA will take two days of mandatory EEO training this year.

I went through the course two weeks ago. The many questions and lively interaction in the classroom showed me that the training was needed. I learned a lot and I wasn’t alone. The #1 lesson: you can’t have a good working environment without mutual respect. That doesn’t mean you need to kneel in front of anyone, but it does mean you may need to try on their shoes.

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