As I wrote recently, 97% of the charges filed within the federal sector are dismissed. That’s a public fact available to anyone in the federal government who is contemplating filing a claim. The odds of winning a case are far slimmer than guessing the toss of a coin or even playing a slot machine. Further, launching a claim is not without risk; whether or not a person is victimized by unlawful retaliation there is often a regrettable stigma attached to filing a charge. It focuses attention on the claimant and can generate ill will among others. The less merit a claim has, the more likely it is to antagonize co-workers and leaders even if no overt retaliation or ostracism ever occurs.
So why, then, do people file “meritless charges” in the growing numbers that they do? There are two major reasons and both require attention. First, many file because they are being treated miserably or disrespectfully at work. They may not be victims of discrimination, but they want someone to pay attention to what is happening to them and they want the conduct to stop. No matter who you are, you can readily find some legal basis to launch a claim whether it’s race, sex, religion, age, ethnicity, disability, etc. Tack on improper behaviors, even those not illegally motivated, and the result is a charge of harassment or hostile work environment. These claims may not lead to a finding of illegality, yet they are the basis of many of the 97% claims which in turn are ultimately rejected.
People often complain first about such conduct involving their leader or a person in authority and nothing is done. The concern may be viewed as trivial or a distraction as it does not appear to involve a “legal” violation. Yet, the complainant wants the problem fixed as it is affecting his/her work and productivity. In any case, when nothing is done, those affected have challenging options: either ignore the behavior, leave, or file a charge borne out of frustration in hopes that someone will listen (whether or not they are formally vindicated). Organizations attempting only to manage illegal behaviors will never reduce these charges and the government will continue to be flooded with “meritless” complaints.
The second reason meritless charges are filed is that many don’t know what discrimination is. Claims founded on a misperception of what unlawful discrimination is form the basis for many claims. That is, an individual sees himself in a protected group (we all are), and when something he doesn’t like happens to him, he ties it to an illegal motive. These individuals need to understand where to go within their organization for advice before filing a charge. There is a huge difference between a fair yet firm decision and one that’s wrong but within the legitimate scope of leader decision making and unlawful discrimination.
So what are the solutions? These three solutions won’t eliminate all charges, but they will help prevent problems from reaching a critical point where a charge is filed which will minimize losses in productivity and effectiveness that arise when individuals work in disruptive workplaces.
Address disruptive “legal” but improper behaviors, as well as illegal actions in the context of organizational values and workplace education. Virtually all public and private sector organizations have values such as respect, inclusion and civility which need to be linked to a few clear, specific behaviors. The point is that such unchecked behaviors eliminate organizational or mission effectiveness and are inappropriate if not illegal.
Give managers the skills, training and knowledge needed to listen to concerns in a non-judgmental fashion. They can then signal legal problems or a pattern of behavior affecting many others, though only one comes forward. Leaders need to know and consider this when issues are brought to their attention and before these matters are fully investigated.
Make sure non-managers know and believe that the organization wants to learn of problems and the proper steps they should take to raise their concerns. Just as important, employees should understand the parameters of acceptable conduct, legal or not, and also be able to distinguish serious issues involving potential legal or improper conduct from periodic disagreements or communications problems that arise in any workplace.
Preventing, finding out about and correcting many of these issues will not only cut down on the number of claims that lack legal merit but represent serious workplace issues. Implementing these solutions will also result in minimizingcosts, loss in production and collegiality that arise when charges that could have been more easily resolved through other mechanisms are not filed.