When a discrimination complaint is filed in a government program, or in the workplace, there are concerns regarding confidentiality, retaliation, and the threat of harm to public or professional reputations. The advent of electronic mail and a myriad of social media sites compound the complexity of these concerns. The bottom line is, you will not be able to control the actions of the parties to a discrimination complaint but, as an investigator, you can control your own actions as well as the investigative process. In this paper, we’ll discuss when and to whom you give notice of a discrimination complaint and how to maintain control over the investigative process.
For federally funded programs or activities, a discrimination complaint is filed by a Charging Party alleging denial of benefits, services, aid, or training by the Respondent on a prohibited basis (i.e. race, color, national origin, age, gender, disability, and so on). The Charging Party (CP) is a beneficiary, or potential beneficiary, of a federally funded program. The Respondents are the (1) agency or other entity operating the program, and (2) the employee acting on behalf of the agency or entity.
One example of discrimination in a government program is where a college professor gives one of his students a higher grade in exchange for sex. The student (CP) files a quid pro quo sexual harassment complaint against the college and its professor (Respondents). Another example is where the unemployment insurance counselor at a one stop career center refuses to assist persons with hearing impairments because it takes too much time. Here, the persons with hearing impairments (CPs) file a disability-based discrimination complaint against the unemployment insurance counselor and the one stop career center (Respondents).
An example of a workplace discrimination complaint is where a supervisor gives a black subordinate an adverse performance appraisal. The employee (Complainant) would file a color-based discrimination complaint against the supervisor (Respondent).
√ Determining jurisdiction
The first step for any investigator when s/he receives a discrimination complaint is determining jurisdiction. Is there authority to investigate a particular complaint? Here, the investigator is looking at things such as timeliness, apparent merit, protected class characteristics, and so on.
At this initial stage, the investigator is not determining whether the allegations are true; rather, s/he is merely figuring out whether the complaint meets certain basic jurisdictional requirements. Most often, this stage of the investigation involves communicating only with the CP or Complainant. Because the complaint has not officially been accepted for investigation, there is no need to notify the named Respondents of the complaint at this time.
Moreover, generally, if the investigator finds that s/he is without jurisdiction to investigate a complaint (i.e. it is untimely, lacks apparent merit, and the like), then written notice of that fact must be provided to the CP or Complainant, but it may not be necessary to provide the named Respondents with such notice. Check with the civil rights office of your federal funding agency for requirements applicable to you.
√ Accepting the complaint
If the investigator concludes that s/he has jurisdiction over the complaint and will accept it for investigation, then all parties to the complaint must receive notice of what is being investigated and must have an opportunity to respond to the notice.
For a complaint involving a federally funded program or activity, this notice generally is provided to the CP, and the named Respondents. Some federal funding agencies also may request notice that you’ve accepted a complaint. In a workplace complaint, the Complainant is provided notice as well as the Respondent, who may be a supervisor, manager, co-worker, contractor, or the like.
And, in complaints involving harassment or hostile environment, higher-ranking officials in the chain of command may need to be served with the notice.
√ Why do both parties need to know?
Providing notice to both parties that you have accepted a discrimination complaint for investigation is required because each party needs to be allowed to present evidence. Most discrimination complaints arise under the disparate treatment legal theory. Here, the CP or Complainant must demonstrate a prima facie case that discrimination occurred by a preponderance of the evidence; that is, it is more likely than not that prohibited discrimination occurred. Then the burden shifts to the Respondents to present legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for their conduct. Finally, the burden shifts back to the CP or Complainant to demonstrate that the Respondents proffered reasons are pretextual.
Therefore, both sides of the dispute will need to participate in the investigative process.
√ The conduct of the investigation
At this point, both sides of the dispute are aware of the investigation. You will not have control over whether a party or witness talks, e-mails, or tweets about the complaint. And, an investigator is cautioned against seeking to impose “gag” orders on anyone involved. Nor should an investigator threaten disciplinary action or other sanctions against any party or witness discussing the matter. These are not useful tactics and they may constitute a violation of certain federal laws. Indeed, certain private employers must be mindful of the recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board in Banner Health System and Navarro, 358 NLRB 93 (July 30, 2012) (an employer may not apply a rule prohibiting employees from discussing ongoing investigations of employee insubordination as this violates the National Labor Relations Act).
Some investigators may want to “expedite” matters by conducting an “informal” investigation without written notice to either party. This is problematic. In order for your investigation to be fair to both parties, the parties must know the issue that you are looking into for purposes of the complaint, and they must have an opportunity to be heard on the issue.
Some investigators in educational programs and activities may be hesitant to issue written notices out of concern that students may disseminate the notices via e-mail, Facebook, or the like, thus hindering the ability to conduct a fair investigation.
In such situations, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, the Respondent educational institution will (or should) have privacy and confidentiality policies related to these discrimination complaint investigations, and these policies should be widely-published. Although the policies bind the investigator and his or her organizations in respecting the privacy of parties and confidentiality of the investigative process, it may be useful to provide a copy of these policies to the CP or Complainant and the alleged wrongdoer(s). Here, you do not seek to control the actions of the parties (as this a losing battle); rather, you seek to increase their awareness of the importance of confidentiality and privacy in these investigations.
Although “gag” orders and disciplinary threats are not recommended ways to curb open discussions of an ongoing discrimination investigation, the following points can be made verbally and in writing to the parties:
● Acceptance of the complaint of discrimination does not mean that discrimination has occurred. It only means that there is authority to start the investigation of the complaint (i.e. the complaint was timely filed and so on). At this point, information will be gathered from both sides to determine whether each of the allegations in the complaint is proven or not proven. If the allegations are not proven, then a written finding that discrimination is not proven will be issued. If the allegations are proven by a preponderance of the evidence, then a written finding of discrimination will issue.
When issuing a written notice accepting a discrimination complaint for investigation, the investigator may decide to include the following language at the beginning of the written notice:
THIS NOTICE DOES NOT CONSTITUTE A FINDING THAT ANY DISCRIMINATION HAS OCCURRED. THE SOLE PURPOSE OF THIS NOTICE IS TO INFORM THE PARTIES THAT I HAVE RECEIVED A DISCRIMINATION COMPLAINT AND I HAVE AUTHORITY TO INVESTIGATE IT.
An investigator can reinforce his or her expectations that the parties should focus their energies on aiding with the investigation. The investigator, in turn, will focus on getting to the bottom of the allegations made to determine whether prohibited discrimination took place.
● An investigator should make clear that the conduct of the CP or Complainant and the Respondents during the investigation will be considered in determining whether the investigative process is being improperly utilized to harass a party, retaliate against a party, or the like. And, any written communications of the parties at the time of the incident at issue, including e-mail exchanges and postings on social media may be gathered and analyzed to determine the motives of the parties.
● The parties should be reminded that the purpose of the investigative process is not to threaten, intimidate, retaliate against, or humiliate either party. They should understand that it is the investigator’s job to develop the evidence and determine what happened.
● The one person whose conduct can be controlled in this entire process is that of the investigator. To maintain credibility, an investigator must be discrete, non-judgmental with both parties, and confidential in his or her words (written and verbal) and actions. An investigator should not discuss the investigation with co-workers, friends, or family. There should be no interference from outside sources seeking to dictate the course and/or outcome of the investigation. And, the investigator must have authority to report directly to the highest-ranking official of the agency, company, or organization. The parties have come to the investigator because they need to have a problem solved. The investigator should be part of the solution to the problem as opposed to being part of its continuation or escalation.
● It is important for an investigator to be organized and to resolve the complaint as soon as practicable. Whether the discrimination complaint stems from the operation of a government program or conduct in the workplace, efforts at counseling and/or mediation early in the process can be very helpful.
● Finally, complaints of harassment and hostile environment present some additional challenges for the investigator. Prior to the filing of any such complaint, leadership at an agency, company, educational institution, or other organization must make sure it has specific written steps in place for separating the individuals involved. Although an investigator must gather evidence and statements to determine whether the allegations of harassment and hostile environment are proven by a preponderance of the evidence, steps must be taken in the interim to provide relief and protection for the CP or Complainant from the alleged wrongdoer(s). And, for such complaints arising in the workplace, the EEOC encourages the investigator to keep the identity of the Complainant, and the information collected, as confidential as possible. There is a reality that the investigator needs to be able to collect evidence and question witnesses about the event at issue. The idea, however, is that the investigator should exercise diligence and caution, and should refrain from openly discussing the investigation in the workplace.
√ The final determination
Once the investigation is completed, a written determination of findings and conclusions must be sent to the parties. In complaints involving federally funded programs and activities, the federal funding agency also may require that you submit a copy to it. And, some federal funding agencies require that the written determination be sent to the state Governor’s office. The determination should provide the parties with a notice of any appeal rights available to them should they wish to challenge the determination. Similarly, final agency actions issued after investigation of workplace disputes must comply with EEOC requirements. For a description of those requirements, go to www.eeoc.gov.
Again, the investigator should not offer side comments or other statements to anyone. The determination will speak for itself and it should be only in the hands of the persons who are required to be notified. Otherwise, the investigative file containing notes, evidence, witness statements, notices, and determinations must be kept confidential, and secured in a location with limited (“need to know”) access.
√ About Seena Foster
Seena Foster, award-winning civil rights author and Principal of the discrimination consulting firm, Title VI Consulting, LLP in Alexandria, Virginia, provides expertise and guidance in the areas of civil rights compliance and discrimination complaint investigations related to the delivery of federally-assisted workforce development programs and activities. Her customers include state and local governments, K-12 public school systems, colleges and universities, private companies, private counsel, and non-profit organizations. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her Web site at www.titleviconsulting.com for additional information regarding the services and resources she offers.
By way of background, in 2003, Ms. Foster served as a Senior Policy Analyst to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (CRC). In that capacity, she led a team of equal opportunity specialists to conduct disability-based technical assistance reviews of One-Stop centers, and she assisted the CRC’s leadership in preparing for limited English proficiency-based compliance reviews. Ms. Foster also analyzed and weighed witness statements and documents to prepare numerous final determinations for signature by the CRC Director, which resolved discrimination complaints under a variety of federal civil rights laws such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Section 188 of the Workforce Investment Act. In 2006, Ms. Foster received the Secretary of Labor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Award in recognition of “exceptional efforts to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full access to employment and related services and benefits at the Nation’s One-Stop Career Centers.” And, at the request of the CRC, Ms. Foster served as a popular workshop speaker at national equal opportunity forums co-sponsored by the CRC and the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Her presentations covered topics such as the WIA Section 188 disability checklist, conducting discrimination complaint investigations and writing final determinations, and conducting investigations of allegations involving harassment and hostile environment.
With a passion for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in the delivery of federally-assisted programs and activities, Ms. Foster remains highly active in the field through her series of on-demand webcasts for equal opportunity professionals as well as through on-site training, and assistance developing policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with applicable federal civil rights laws. Her training in the areas of compliance and complaint investigations has been described as “dynamic,” “hitting the nail on the head,” “well-organized,” and “informative.” And, her award-winning book on conducting discrimination complaint investigations is viewed as “eye-opening” and “the best on the market.” In 2007, Ms. Foster was certified as a mediator by the Virginia Supreme Court, and later obtained “Federal Workplace Mediation” certification through the Northern Virginia Mediation Service.
She is a member of the Discrimination Law and Human Rights Law Committees of the International Bar Association. Ms. Foster received her undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, and she has a Juris Doctorate from The George Washington University Law School.