Weekly Wrap: Why I’m Worried About This Scary Talk From the EEOC

Here’s something that should strike fear into the heart of every manager, executive, and HR professional everywhere: The EEOC says it is “reinvigorated” and “becoming more aggressive in looking into claims of sex discrimination in pay and that the agency doesn’t need a formal complaint by a woman to begin an investigation.”

Now, equal pay for equal work is a critically important workplace issue. It speaks to fairness and equity on the job. Women have a right to equal pay and should have the means at their disposal to make a challenge when they believe they are being shortchanged. That’s what the Lilly Ledbetter Fair pay Act of 2009 is all about.

But, comments from Equal Employment Opportunity Commission employees that were made at a Phoenix Fair Pay Day seminar this week, and reported by The Arizona Republic, should send a chill through managers everywhere because they speak to how a powerful federal agency with a huge amount of legal clout can poke its activist, invasive nose into any company, at any time, anywhere.

Here’s what Andrea Baran, described by the newspaper as “supervisory attorney in the (EEOC’s Phoenix) district office” had to say:

More enforcement will happen as part of the Obama administration’s commitment to fair pay, she said.

“Things were put in place years ago, but they fell by the wayside,” Baran said. “We’re reinvigorated now.”

Baran said workers who fear losing their jobs if they complain can call the EEOC anonymously.

“One thing about the Equal Pay Act is that EEOC has the authority to do an investigation without a charge,” Baran said. “We won’t promise we will investigate, but we have the authority.”

Here’s the phrase that troubles me: the “EEOC has the authority to do an investigation without a charge.”

I don’t know about you, but the notion of a federal agency with so much power swooping in and investigating some organization’s workplace practices “without a charge” isn’t exactly what I think our federal government should be doing in the wake of the Great Recession and slowly developing economic recovery.

And if you’re not worried about this just yet, here’s a little more from The Arizona Republic story:

Berta Echeveste, enforcement manager in the Phoenix district office, said a pay investigation would be more likely if a third party contacted the EEOC, such as a union, a human-resources manager or an attorney. The agency also peruses census data to see which industries tend to be more discriminatory.

“We take very seriously our power to start an investigation without a formal complaint,” she said. “You will see more of these.”

And Echeveste added later in the story, “All we need is one (instance of unequal pay). The law is very powerful.”

Maybe I’m reading more into this than I should, and perhaps I’m overreacting to these comments made at one seminar on one day in Phoenix. But what troubles me is the tenor and tone of the comments coming from these EEOC employees, particularly the grandiose notions of power and authority that these government workers quoted in The Republic seem to have.

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Yes, equal pay for equal work is a critical workplace issue we need to solve, but why do I feel that when it comes to the EEOC, the solution may turn out to be worse, in some cases, than the equal pay problem?

One thing is for certain: I don’t know of any business anywhere that wants to be the subject of an investigation started without a formal complaint by a powerful federal agency with employees who openly, brazenly, and some might say, flippantly, talk about how much legal power and regulatory clout they have behind them.

That’s a scary, frightening notion — in Phoenix, Arizona or anywhere else in America.

But there’s a lot more in the news this week than our activist EEOC. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. Yes, I do it so you don’t have to.

  • The LAPD’s huge HR Problem — What would happen if your business paid out millions of dollars every year, year after year, for sexual harassment, racial discrimination, retaliation, and other workplace issues? I’m guessing heads would roll, but that’s not the case in the LA Police Department, according to the Los Angeles Times. “In the last decade, at least 16 … officers have won million-dollar-plus jury verdicts or settlements from the city in lawsuits in which they leveled accusations of sexual harassment, racial discrimination, retaliation and other workplace injustices. Dozens more officers have won five- or six-figure paydays. “These cases irk the heck out of me,” said City Councilman Greig Smith, who has been a critic of the city’s job-protection rules that, he said, make it too difficult to fire officers who cause workplace problems. “Somebody running a private company would never let this … stand. Why do we let it happen here?”
  • More evidence workers are ticked off, burned out, ready to bolt. Here’s yet another survey that shows that workers are burnt out and ready to move, courtesy of a MetLife survey reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.The insurance firm surveyed 1,400 employees and 1,500 business executives last fall on their work attitudes. The American worker, they found, is ticked off and hoping to bail out. ‘This year’s findings reveal a workforce that has grown more dissatisfied and disloyal, to the point where a startling one in three employees hopes to be working elsewhere in the next 12 months,’ the study said.
  • Four workers for every job opening out there. There were just 4.3 unemployed workers for every available job in March, the best ratio in over two years, according to a new Labor Department report. And, The New York Times’ Economix blog adds, “when conditions were worst, there were nearly seven workers per opening.”
  • The work from home debate. Think you might want to work from home, or, that it is a boondoggle for workers who keep lobbying for it? Well, listen in on this discussion I had with former SHRM CEO Sue Meisinger and Joyce Maroney of Kronos in this Kronos Workplace Institute podcast titled Working From Home.
  • Horrible Bosses? That’s one summer movie I want to see. The trailer is out for a summer movie titled Horrible Bosses, that according to The Wall Street Journal,co-stars Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day as three friends who decide to kill the people who they work for (Jennifer Aniston, Kevin Spacey and Colin Farrell.)” Watch the trailer; I think you’ll be intrigued.


John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


3 Comments on “Weekly Wrap: Why I’m Worried About This Scary Talk From the EEOC

  1.  John,I don’t think the EEOC comments are scary. Well, they could be because words are cheap ad maybe what they actually do will prove to be abusive and counter-productive.  By I am not bothered by the trend. There is a problem to be solved and that means change and that means disruption, to someone. Governments in general are far more interventionist in Europe, in Germany say where the economy is steaming ahead. You are right to spotlight the issue and raise caution but I remain optimistic.

    1. My problem here is with a government that seems the wax and wane on when it should intervene and NEVER seems to get it right. Do we want the EEOC going after companies for wage fairness issues without a complaint, or because some bureaucrat somewhere gets in a snit and decides they want to make a statement?

      When the government should step in — say, during the run-up to the mortgage crisis when anybody breathing who could sign their name got okayed for a loan — they didn’t. Now, in the wake of the bank bailout, you can hardly get a loan without jumping through incredible hoops and giving up your first born, even if you have great credit scores and the means to pay.

      I don’t think following the lead of interventionist governments in Europe is the answer either, because Germany’s economy is the exception and certainly not the rule.

      My point remains the same: fair pay for all is a worthwhile goal we should strive for, but giving the government carte blanche to simply go after a business without any complaint at all is a recipe for disaster — and, for killing the fairly mild economic recovery we have going on.

      The comments from the EEOC staff in Phoenix are scary because they show (to me at least) brazen bureaucrats very full of themselves and on a high horse of righteousness. I would feel better if the comments coming from them had more to do with the responsibility they have and their notions of fairness and wielding it carefully rather than the want to simply right wrongs regardless of the cost.    

      1. John,It’s easy to see the legitimate fears that you cite. And maybe the US government approaches never work out well – although I doubt that statement holds up under scrutiny. Your warnings and worries are not without merit. But don’t think Germany is the exception. America will one day have to abandon it’s lowly placing on most measures of societal fairness and quality. Having lived and worked in five countries in Europe I am dangerously slightly informed. The high-profile European weaknesses have much more to do with countries attempting to follow the American frontier, non-interventionist mentality than the opposite. Facts matter in this, as in everything. Still, I support your desire to raise red flags – it never hurts to be careful.

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