Guilty Until Proven Innocent. My Adventure in the Wonderful World of EEO.
Me, a racist! This was probably the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard in my entire life. But nevertheless, there it was in black and white, a formal EEO complaint claiming that I had discriminated against a woman on the grounds of race. My Human Resource Manager, Paula, sat there quietly as I read over the statement. I looked up, puzzled, wondering for a moment exactly if and how I should respond before she interrupted me.
Paula began slowly, first, there are a couple of things you need to do. Wait, I thought, why do I have to do anything? This is absurd. She continued we must prepare for a pre-EEO hearing at which time we will meet to try and resolve this issue. Resolve what? What issue? There is no issue? I did nothing wrong!
Let me start off by clarifying my position on the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) act. I think it is a wonderful and necessary thing. Yes, I acknowledge without a doubt that, there is in fact discrimination and racism in the work place. But with me, really? Having been raised in a conservative, Christian family, I have always been fair-minded and objective with the philosophy of work hard for what you want and “the sky’s the limit” and “live and let live”. According to the complaint that was not the case.
The charges stemmed from a recent promotional opportunity where I was the selecting official and the complainant did not get the position. Interesting that this woman actually worked for me the past few years and we got along just fine, or so I thought. The position in question was a desirable job which would serve as a direct-report under my area of responsibility. As was protocol, an independent review panel interviewed the original twelve applicants and then narrowed it down to 3 candidates for a second interview and subsequently my final selection.
As it turned out, all 3 candidates, Tom, Dick and Jane, happen to already work for me in lower level positions. I had a difficult task with my selection as all 3 had good resumes with various skill-sets. It should be noted that all 3 were also minorities of different ethnic backgrounds. Later I found this fact astounding since I was accused of discriminating against a minority but had actually selected a minority!
Tom had been covering the vacant manager position for a couple of months which led the others to believe he had the edge. The truth was that Tom, whose real job was an analyst in that same unit, may have had an edge simply because of his demonstrated ability, extensive knowledge of the operation and phenomenal work ethic.
Dick was another analyst in the unit. He was as smart as they come but somewhat of a clock-watcher. Dick had great potential for upward mobility but was more of a work-in-progress. However, he was definitely a contender for future promotional opportunities.
Lastly there was Jane who would ultimately not get the job and file the EEO claim. Although Jane did not work in the unit she did have knowledge of the job and some managerial experience. Her weakness was that she had an entitlement mentality. Jane simply thought because she worked for the company the longest that she should be given the job. She never demonstrated that she was in fact the best qualified for the position.
Since I already managed all 3 in some capacity, I also conducted their quarterly and year-end evaluations. Little did I know that these evaluations would prove to be very useful during the EEO “tribunal”. A date was finally set for what is formerly known as an EEO pre-arbitration hearing. I was advised not to discuss the matter with the complainant. The awkward thing was that I had to work with this woman every day until the meeting.
I was contacted a few weeks before the meeting and advised that I was assigned legal counsel by the company. Legal counsel! Why in God’s name do I need legal counsel? I did not do anything wrong! I was told that because I was a higher-level manager, all precautions must be taken to protect the company. Protect them from what? Again, I did nothing wrong! I began thinking how ironic it was that I always felt that people who protested the most about their innocence were trying to over-compensate and were actually guilty in one way or another. Now, I am in that position and my company is circling the wagons to protect themselves!
As the weeks passed getting closer to the hearing date, I felt myself going through a whirlwind of emotions. Everything from anger and disgust to sympathy and laughter. Yes, in a certain sense it was funny. After all, anyone who knew me would think it was comical that I could be accused of such a terrible thing. However, it seemed that more and more people had learned of the accusations and I began to notice a change in people’s behavior around the office. This was very disheartening as it appeared that not only did this issue become a distraction for me, but for my entire staff.
From what I could tell, the staffers seemed to be taking sides on the issue. Non-verbal actions were more noticeable, such as conversations that would abruptly end in mid-sentence as I walked by. This type of activity started to make me paranoid. I began to see that the court of public opinion is truly a force to be reckoned with. I fought the urge to bring the staff together to discuss the issue and state my position. But how could I? What exactly was my position - that I was not a racist? The subject of racism is such a taboo subject that it is never discussed around the office. How is it even broached? Besides I was instructed not to discuss the matter.
As the days dragged on, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that I had been deemed guilty until proven innocent. But even though I knew I was not, would I ever be classified as innocent or fully exonerated? Some people seemed to have already drawn their own conclusion of my guilt even without the facts!
As we approached the hearing date I finally came to a peaceful place in my mind that it really should not matter what others thought rather just that I was not guilty of the charges. The fact remained that it did matter, to my subordinate staff, my colleagues and even my bosses. In order to appease the complainant I would be asked to resolve this issue by promising this person a future promotion for a job that they may not be the best qualified. It appears that with EEO cases most companies and lawyers want them to go away quietly - even if they have merit or not.
Although I have not yet made any final decision in the case, I have learned some important life-lessons. That is that, perception is reality and yes indeed there is injustice in this world.