The responsibility of investigating and deciding discrimination complaints generally lies with equal opportunity (EO) professionals. Discrimination complaints may arise in the workplace, or in the delivery of federally-funded and federally-assisted programs and activities. Indeed, with regard to the delivery of federally-assisted aid, training, services, or benefits, addressing discrimination complaints is one of the key responsibilities of the EO professional at the agency, service provider, vender, or operator. EO professionals have a variety of titles, i.e. the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) EO Officer, Title VI Coordinator, ADA Coordinator, Title IX Coordinator, and so on.
This paper directs EO professionals in federally-assisted programs and activities to some important issues that arise in discrimination complaint investigations. Developing policies and procedures addressing these issues in advance of receiving a discrimination complaint will yield significant time savings down the road.
√ Where do you fit in the overall process?
Make sure you know the source(s) of potential discrimination complaints, which may be filed with you. For federally-assisted programs, beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries of the aid, training, benefits, and services you offer may file discrimination complaints. For that reason, you’ll need to know what federally-assisted services, aid, training, and benefits your agency, organization, or company offers.
Is there a Web site where complaint forms and other information may be found? Once you render a decision on a complaint, and one of the parties disagrees with your decision, what are the party’s rights?
√ How to you handle issues of representation?
What are the policies and procedures related to representation of a party to a discrimination complaint? Is a lay representative or attorney representative allowed? If so, at what point in the process may the representative enter an appearance? How much involvement may the representative have with non-party witnesses? What do you do if a complainant asks for legal representation? For example, do you have contact information for entities like the local bar association or legal aid services available?
√ How do you process a discrimination complaint involving a minor?
This issue most often arises in the context of federally-assisted educational, apprenticeship, and/or training programs involving high school age or early college age students. For example, in a Job Corps program, discrimination complaints may arise between a teacher or school official and a minor student, between two students, or any number of other variations. In your jurisdiction, what is the age of a minor? Can a minor file a discrimination complaint, or must a parent or legal guardian sign the complaint also? How do you handle confidentiality and privacy of the minor? How do you handle witnesses who are minors? What happens to the complaint if a parent or guardian will not sign with the minor?
√ How do you process anonymous complaints?
Anonymous complaints present special concerns to the EO professional. Possibly the complainant is afraid of retaliation, and seeks to protect his/her identity. On the other hand, a complainant may harbor a grudge against the respondent, and seek to harass the respondent by invoking a discrimination complaint investigation. Either way, you should know the policies and procedures of your agency, company, or organization for handling these complaints. Do you proceed with the investigation, or do you conduct monitoring or a compliance review?
√ What if a complaint should be directed to another agency?
When you receive a complaint, but find another agency or entity has jurisdiction to investigate it (such as the EEOC), what is the procedure for referring the complaint? Will you (1) forward the complaint directly to the other entity and notify the complainant, (2) return the complaint to the complainant with instructions to file with another entity, or (3) handle the complaint another way?
√ How do you handle issues of privacy and confidentiality?
We covered these issues in conjunction with handling complaints involving minors, but issues of privacy and confidentiality are present in every discrimination complaint investigation. What are the policies pertaining to privacy and confidentiality? Who has access to the investigative file? If you get a request for documents from the file from a non-party, what do you do? If a party wants copies of all witness statements, do you provide those? How do you handle a complainant’s medical information that may be the investigative file? If a party or non-party wants your investigative notes, do you provide those? If you get advice from your EO leadership or legal staff and a party or non-party requests that information, do you provide it? What do you do with personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and the like? And, finally, what are your policies and procedures for collecting, using, storing, and disclosing medical information?
√ What if the complainant dies or cannot be located?
You receive a discrimination complaint, and then learn the complainant died, or you cannot make contact with the complainant. What do you do with the complaint? Does it make a difference if the complainant filed the complaint alone, or as part of a class action?
√ How do you handle a complainant’s request to withdraw a complaint?
If a complainant seeks to withdraw his or her discrimination complaint, what do you do? What are the complainant’s rights should s/he choose to re-file the complaint?
√ What are your procedures for reducing witness statements to writing?
Once you have completed interviews of the parties to a complaint as well as any witnesses, what is the procedure for reducing the statements of the parties and witnesses to writing? Who writes the statements? Do the statements need to be signed? Must they be notarized? What if an interviewee is limited English proficient, or has a disability and needs auxiliary aids and services during the discrimination complaint investigation process?
√ What is the policy on harassment and is it publicized?
You must understand the harassment policies of your agency, company, or organization. Make sure the policies are well-known at all levels or your agency, organization, or company, and are well-known to the members of the public who come to you for aid, services, training, or benefits. Conduct periodic training to minimize the potential for the filing of a harassment-based discrimination complaint. Convey a “no tolerance” position on the subject. The more comprehensive and publicized your harassment policies are, the less likely you will face this type of complaint.
Keep in mind that engaging in harassment or hostile environment on any prohibited basis (i.e. race, color, national origin, and so on), not just sexual harassment, constitutes discrimination in violation of federal civil rights laws.
√ What are your policies for handling accommodation and modification requests?
Knowing the policies for handling disability-based and religious-based requests for accommodation or modification is central to effectively and successfully resolving these issues. Staff must be trained regularly on these policies, and how to implement them from the moment a beneficiary or potential beneficiary makes that initial request. Reasonable accommodation and modification processes require engaging in a highly interactive dialogue where both sides explore possible accommodations or modifications. Having a well-trained staff goes far in alleviating failure to accommodate complaints.
√ How do you serve persons who are limited English proficient (LEP)?
Our communities benefit from the skills, knowledge, and experiences of increasingly diverse peoples, some of whom are not fluent in English. In federally-assisted programs and activities, we must afford LEP persons meaningful access to all aid, training, benefits, or services for which they meet the essential eligibility requirements.
What are the procedures you have in place for serving LEP persons in your community? What if you receive an LEP person who does not speak any of the languages spoken by a majority of the population in your community? What are the resources available to you at the federal, state, and local levels for assisting LEP persons? Is your staff trained to serve LEP persons from the moment they come through your doors?
√ What are the policies for using mediation to resolve disputes?
Mediation can be useful in resolving discrimination complaints, particularly when it occurs early in the process. Mediation is an integral component of resolving workplace discrimination complaints. And, often, issues involving denial of access to aid, training, benefits, or services in federally-assisted programs and activities are suitable for mediation. Do you have policies and procedures in place for use of mediation? What resources are available to you (such as a list of available mediators)?
√ Are there instances where you will expedite consideration of a complaint?
What are your policies and procedures for expedited handling of a discrimination complaint? For example, if a complainant alleges that s/he was retaliated against because of a prior complaint filed, is there a policy to give the retaliation complaint expedited treatment?
√ Is the complainant required to exhaust administrative remedies?
Do you have policies and procedures in place related to exhaustion of remedies? If so, what are the types of complaints covered by these policies and procedures? For example, before you accept a discrimination complaint pertaining to the denial of unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, will you require that the complainant exhaust the UI appeals process?
√ What are the policies for audio and/or video recordings of interviews?
During your interviews of witnesses, you may seek to record the interviews by means of audio and/or video equipment. Are recorded interviews permissible or prohibited in your state or locality? Do you need permission from the interviewee? Will you summarize the interview in a written statement? What procedure will you follow to allow the interviewee to review any written statement for purposes of ensuring accuracy and completeness? Does the interviewee need to sign the statement?
About Seena Foster
Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Partner of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of compliance and civil rights investigations to state and local governments, colleges and universities, private companies, and non-profit organizations. To that end, she offers one hour webinars, full-day and half-day in-person training sessions, assistance developing policies and procedures, and mediation services addressing a variety of types of discrimination such as racial discrimination, sex discrimination, disability discrimination, age discrimination, and religious discrimination. The federal law on discrimination is complex and affects our workplaces as well as the delivery of our federally-funded and federally-assisted programs and activities. Her book, Civil Rights Investigations Under the Workforce Investment Act and Other Title VI Related Laws: From Intake to Final Determination, has been described as an “eye-opening” reading experience and a “stand-alone” training resource. Ms. Foster’s resources and materials are designed to support the work of civil rights and discrimination professionals in the public and private sectors. You may contact her through www.titleviconsulting.com.