Several laws provide federal employees and applicants with protections from illegal discrimination. However, it isn’t always easy for employees and applicants to make the most of these protections. They do not protect you all by themselves. You have to use them.
So, how do you draw upon these protections? There are several different steps you can take. Sometimes, you may find an adequate resolution at the first step. More often, you might take three or more steps. Altogether, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) lists six steps you might take to seek justice after unlawful discrimination.
Contact an EEO counselor
As the EEOC notes, you must begin by contacting an EEO counselor at your agency, or the agency to which you applied. You have a time limit of 45 days from the discriminatory action.
As the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) notes in its summary of the process, this “precomplaint counseling” aims at three main goals:
- To provide you information about the process, including your rights, obligations and time limits
- To help you frame and define your issue
- To help you resolve your complaint informally or through mediation, rather than via a more formal complaint
After you meet with an EEO counselor, you have a 15-day time limit to file a formal complaint.
File a formal complaint
You must file this complaint with your agency’s EEO office. Naturally, your complaint must meet a couple basic requirements:
- Identify the adverse action, policy, practice or decision that serves as the basis for your complaint
- Limit your complain to the issues you discussed with the EEO counselor
As the FTC’s process summary notes, you may file this complaint, or you may have a representative file it for you. Provided you file correctly, your agency will investigate the matter. After the investigation, your agency will ask you to make a choice. You can request a hearing with an EEOC Administrative Judge, or you can ask the agency to issue its official decision on the matter.
Request a hearing with an EEOC Administrative Judge
If you want a hearing, you must request one within 30 days after you receive the agency’s report of its investigation. This hearing functions like a trial in many ways, and the Administrative Judge will hear the evidence and arguments both sides present.
There is no jury. At the end of the hearing, the Administrative Judge will make a decision and order the appropriate relief if the finding is in your favor.
However, either side may appeal this decision. In fact, the agency has 40 days to issue its “final order” in response to the Administrative Judge’s decision. This final order will tell you whether the agency agrees with the Administrative Judge and will grant you any relief.
Appeal the agency’s final order
Within 30 days of receiving the agency’s final order, you may file an appeal. As the EEOC notes, when you file your appeal, you may also submit supporting documents. The EEOC will review the entire file, along with the records from your hearing and any statements added in the appeals.
If you disagree with the EEOC’s decision at this stage, you can request a reconsideration. If the agency disagrees, it must file an appeal to the EEOC.
Request a reconsideration of the EEOC’s review and decision
If you disagree with the EEOC’s review of the agency’s final order, you have 30 days to request a reconsideration. This is not a chance to submit new evidence or arguments. You will only receive reconsideration if you can show where the EEOC made mistakes with the existing facts or laws in its decision on review.
File a lawsuit
If you have not yet received justice after the EEOC’s reconsideration, you will have exhausted the administrative options. You can file a lawsuit.
When should you contact an attorney?
You may have noticed that the EEOC does not say if or when you must contact an attorney. It only lists the steps you must take to work through the administrative process. However, it is worth noting that the records from this process will follow you from beginning to end. Every mistake you make will continue to haunt you and hurt your case.
Accordingly, it’s typically wise to work with an attorney as soon as possible. You don’t want a poorly worded complaint to hurt your chances at justice. And you don’t want to overlook any of your limited chances to introduce new evidence. Instead, you want to make sure you take advantage of every opportunity to strengthen your argument. In most cases, that means working with an attorney who understands the process and can guide you through it with confidence.