Allegations of discrimination at Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

A federal agency devoted to protecting consumers has fallen under harsh scrutiny in recent weeks following an employee's claims of widespread harassment, racial discrimination and retaliation.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was established in 2011 as part of a legislative effort to address fraud and corruption in the financial sector in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The CFPB is tasked with improving fairness and transparency for consumers of financial services and products like credit cards, mortgages and student loans.

Racial tensions underlie claims

At a hearing before the House Financial Services Subcommittee, Angela Martin, a CFPB employee, made a number of claims that cast the bureau in an unflattering light. The hearing was scheduled in response to allegations of racial discrimination within the bureau, sparked by reports that white employees were receiving higher ratings than minority employees in the rating system that is used to determine pay raises, bonuses and other benefits for CFPB employees.

Explaining that racial tensions run high in certain parts of the CFPB, Martin alleged that one division staffed primarily by African-Americans is referred to within the bureau as the "cesspool" or the "plantation," noting that employees within that division receive fewer opportunities for advancement than other workers. Furthermore, due to what she described as a "pervasive culture of retaliation and intimidation," Martin claims that many CFPB employees are afraid to speak out about the discrimination and harassment they experience.

Fears of retaliation may keep workers silent

Federal employees are protected by law from retaliation when they speak up about discrimination, harassment or illegal activity in the workplace. Nevertheless, as the recent claims against the CFPB suggest, fear of retaliation can still play a major role in preventing government workers from taking a stand when their rights or the rights of their coworkers are violated.

Illegal retaliation by federal employers can take many forms, including but not limited to termination of workers for filing claims or grievances, reporting illegal activity or participating in the investigation of an existing claim. Other forms of retaliation may be more subtle, for instance being passed over for a promotion, denial of vacation time or other benefits, or even a generalized pattern of increased scrutiny on the job as a result of objecting to unlawful business practices.

Employees of the U.S. government who have experienced workplace harassment, discrimination or retaliation are encouraged to contact a knowledgeable federal employment lawyer to learn about their legal rights and the options that may be available to help protect them and their fellow workers.