The law protects federal employees or job applicants from discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, religion, pregnancy, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. The law also protects federal employees from retaliation if they oppose employment discrimination, file a complaint of discrimination, or participate in the EEO complaint process in any way. However, if you wish to file a discrimination complaint, you must act quickly to preserve your rights.
The first step in preserving your rights is to contact an EEO Counselor at your federal agency. Finding an EEO Counselor at the federal agency should be relatively easy. Most federal agencies have posters and information on their web sites about how to contact an EEO Counselor. Some agencies have centralized their EEO counseling, and provide a toll-free number by which to contact an EEO Counselor. If you cannot figure out how to locate an EEO Counselor, call the office at the Agency’s headquarters that is responsible for administering the Agency’s EEO complaints program. The office may be called the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, the Office of Civil Rights, or some variation.
Generally, you are required to contact the EEO Counselor within 45 calendar days of the date that the discrimination occurred. For example, if you learn that you were not selected for a job, and believe that your non-selection was due to discrimination, you should contact an EEO counselor within 45 calendar days of learning of the non-selection. There are some narrow exceptions that would allow an EEO complaint to go forward even when an EEO counselor is contacted more than 45 days after the discrimination occurred.
Once you have contacted an EEO counselor, the counselor should interview you to discuss the particulars of your complaint of discrimination. A counselor is not supposed to dissuade you from filing an EEO complaint. A counselor is supposed to advise you about the EEO complaint process, and also explain the agency’s alternative dispute resolution (ADR) program. The EEO Counselor should explain that if the ADR program is available, you can choose whether to seek resolution of your discrimination complaint through the ADR process or through the traditional EEO counseling process. The EEO Counselor should also determine what claims you might have (i.e., non-selection, hostile working environment/harassment, denial of award, etc), and what bases of discrimination you have raised (i.e., gender, race, age, etc). The EEO Counselor should discuss with you issues relating to the timeliness of your EEO Counselor contact, but should not decline to meet with you if the counselor thinks you are late in contacting a counselor. The counselor should also try to achieve a resolution of your complaint. If resolution is unsuccessful at this early stage, the counselor is supposed to advise you of your right to file a formal EEO complaint. You must meet all applicable deadlines in order to proceed in your EEO complaint. Last, the counselor is supposed to prepare a report documenting all of the work that the counselor did during the EEO counseling process, and to discuss any jurisdictional questions, such as timeliness, that arise.
Although many employees and job applicants proceed through EEO counseling without contacting an attorney, we urge you to do so as soon as you suspect that you have been discriminated against. Although the EEO Counselor is supposed to help frame your complaint accurately, we have seen many instances where the EEO Counselor does not correctly capture all of the issues that you have raised at the counseling stage. In addition, although the EEO Counselor may suggest a potential settlement of your informal complaint, the EEO Counselor is not your advocate. To be able to fully explore the pros and cons of your case, and evaluate whether an early resolution is acceptable to you, you may wish to have your case evaluated by an attorney.
The attorneys at Kator, Parks & Weiser have extensive experience in representing federal employees at the earliest stages of discrimination complaints. Indeed, we prefer to hear from you as soon as you suspect that you have been discriminated or retaliated against. If we undertake representation of you at this early stage, we can help you cast your complaint in the most advantageous light, assist you in evaluating any early settlement offers, advocate for you in the early EEO counseling stage, and help you decide whether to proceed with formal EEO counseling or ADR. In addition, we can also evaluate whether there are any exceptions that would excuse you from contacting an EEO counselor within 45 days of the occurrence of the discrimination.