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Commission identifies obstacles for African-Americans in federal workforce

Despite decades of regulation, legislation and effort, obstacles continue to hinder equal employment opportunities for African-Americans in the federal workplace, a federal commission has reported.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said "unconscious biases" about African-Americans, a lack of adequate mentoring opportunities and insufficient training assignments all affect hiring or advancement in government jobs.

The failure of agencies to follow and effectively enforce equal employment opportunity law also has an effect, the commission said in the report published this month.

The study is the result of two years of discussion with groups including Blacks in Government and the African American Federal Executives Association. It lists seven conditions the commission said were "the most formidable obstacles to equal employment opportunities" and recommends solutions to each.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House committee that oversees the federal workforce, said he was "pleased" that the commission "took a closer look" at the obstacles, but added it was "truly disappointing that the need for such a study still exists."

"As African-Americans continue to suffer from the highest unemployment in our nation, we must make sure that every unfair and illegal obstacle to meaningful employment in our federal system is removed," the Baltimore lawmaker said.

Cummings said the government had taken "a step in the right direction" with a 2011 executive order by President Barack Obama that called for a government-wide effort to promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce. But, Cummings said, "much more must be done to address discrimination in hiring, retention, and promotion."

The Office of Personnel Management reported last year that black or African-American representation in the federal workforce had increased slightly to 17.8 percent, compared to 10.1 percent in the civilian labor force. Blacks make up 13.1 percent of the general population, according to census estimates for 2011.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that African-Americans "are not considered, groomed, or selected" for high-level positions because there is an "unconscious bias" that such positions are "nontraditional" for such employees. The commission recommended "unconscious bias training" for all employees "so they can become aware of their biases."

With respect to recruiting, the commission said federal agencies tend to prefer candidates who have attended prestigious universities and colleges, which it said "tend to have low percentages of African-American graduates." Federal offices also do not advertise adequately for high-level positions at schools that have high percentages of African-American students, the commission said; it also called for expanded recruitment.

The commission found that many agencies do not hold managers accountable for equal employment opportunity, and lack the resources to effectively prevent and address discrimination. It recommended agencies evaluate supervisors, managers and senior executives on their commitment to equal employment opportunity.

The commission also said agencies should consider demoting or removing managers who have been found to engage in unlawful discrimination, or to have responded inadequately to complaints of harassment.

Philip Taylor, president of the anti-discrimination group Coalition for Change, said the report "pointed out some good facts" but did not go far enough. The Washington-based coalition is pushing Congress to give the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the authority to penalize managers for discrimination.

"The EEOC needs to be more than a toothless tiger," Taylor said. "All it can do now is make recommendations."

Under the current system, he said, "the managers laugh this EEO process off" and "it's usually the employee who files the discrimination complaint who is penalized."

Carlton Haddon, director of the commission's Office of Federal Operations, called the report "the latest step in an ongoing dialogue with agency stakeholders to effectuate a model federal workplace for all employees."

Rep. Blake Farenthold, the Texas Republican who chairs the House federal workforce subcommittee, said the panel would review the report.

"As government watchdogs, it is the subcommittee's responsibility to make sure that federal agencies comply with the rules on the books," he said. "We will certainly review the report and look forward to having a discussion, including the success of the president's executive order, in promoting equal opportunity for all in the federal workforce."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

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