Equal opportunity is for everyone

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND --

The Department of Defense has a zero tolerance policy and will not condone discrimination, including sexual harassment, of any kind. But what can someone do if they encounter such a situation or hostile work environment?

If an individual believes he/she were discriminated against or sexually harassed, steps may be taken through the local Equal Opportunity office. EO is that individual’s tool to address employment-related discrimination and harassment, and workplace disputes.

“If you are being discriminated against or harassed then you are not focused and (unable) to do your job to the best of your ability,” said Master Sgt. Michael Nelson, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Equal Opportunity superintendent.

Discrimination includes treating people unfairly based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender and sexual orientation. This includes nonsexual harassment. Civilians are also protected from discrimination and harassment based on age (40 and over); mental and physical disabilities; genetic information; reprisal/retaliation; pregnancy; equal pay and compensation; sexual identity (transgender).

“Sexual harassment is basically any unwelcomed, unsolicited comments and advances of a sexual nature,” explained Lakreisha Johnson, JBSA-Lackland EO Director and ADR program Manager.

EO is a neutral office that offers processes from Military and Civilians who feel they were discriminated against: filing a complaint or Alternate Dispute Resolution.

“The objective of the EO program to get people back to work into a harassment-free environment,” Johnson said.

 “We will assist and guide you through the legal process to ensure what you said happened to you is looked into and properly addressed – but we won’t advise you on what to do in the process,” Johnson said. “We are not advocates for either party, management or employees.”

Filing a discrimination complaint

Service members, retirees, family members, current and former DOD employees, federal employee applicants and (in some cases) contractors may file complaints in regards to discrimination or sexual harassment, which are related to federal employment.

While the EO office will file complaints in regards to sexual harassment, they do not address sexual assault, which will be directed to the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.

The complaints filed are not confidential, however, people can file anonymous.

The Civilian process for filing varies along with the timeline for the complaint’s resolution, which could take up to three to five years.

Civilians are required to consult with an EO specialist with 45 days of knowledge of the discriminatory act regardless if they are filing a formal or informal complaint. On the other hand, military members must file within 60 days of the act if they are filing a formal complaint. There is no deadline for military members filing an informal complaint.

For further guidance on the exact process, contact the local EO office for assistance as they will guide individuals through the legal process.

Alternate Dispute Resolution

“ADR is a separate process (from filing a complaint) to get an issue resolved,” Nelson said. “It is low-level resolution.”

ADR is an alternative way to resolve disputes. It is both voluntary and confidential.

“It gives people an avenue of redress,” added Johnson.

ADR can be started at any time before or during the filing process or can be done instead of filing.

“We can schedule up a mediation, have the parties come in and have a conversation to try to resolve the issue” Johnson elaborated. “If the issue is not resolved during the mediation then the individual can continue with the complaint process.”

In mediation, a trained EO specialist or mediator assists the parties in negotiating a settlement or resolution as a neutral party.

“It opens the lines of communication,” said Staff Sgt. Eboné Walker, EO specialist. “When they come to mediation, there are things they are able to get out on to the table that management may or may not have known was going on. It also helps builds trust in management so the employees can go to them in confidence and get their assistance.”

Another benefit of using ADR is that it can address and resolve non-legal issues like communication problems and personality conflicts.

“In ADR, you talk about the issues you are having so that you are not wondering why these decision are happening,” Nelson said. “You get answers whether you like them or not, which I think is important because wondering can breed miscommunication.”

“I feel like any time there is an opportunity to shed light on a situation that may or may not be discriminatory in nature should be taken because otherwise it breeds hostility,” Johnson said. “And any environment where hostility exist is not a functional environment. Our program is important because it give people an avenue and opportunity to bring something out into the open that may or may not be right. It gives commanders and supervisors an opportunity to fix something before it becomes a bigger issue, which helps not only the individual, but the organization as a whole.”

In fiscal year 2009, more than 91 percent of parties were satisfied or very satisfied with ADR, according to the ADR pamphlet.

The EO can provide ADR in addition to awareness training on one-to-one basis and group settings. The awareness training assist individuals in avoiding behavior and assuming stereotypes that could potentially be offensive by informing them on culture customs and heritage they may not be aware of.

For more information, contact the EO office at JBSA-Lackland at 210-671-4284, JBSA-Fort Sam Houston at 210-221-0218, or JBSA-Randolph at 210-652-3749.