By Kandis West, Tinker Air Force Base Public Affairs
/ Published September 07, 2007
TINKER AIR FORCE BASE -- When you step into the Tinker Civilian Equal Employment Opportunity Complaints Office, it hard to tell they deal with workplace disputes.
You are greeted by bright colors, inspiring art work, a mild fragrant mist, soft music and of course, a smiling and friendly administrative assistant.
"We want people to feel like it is private where they feel comfortable to express their concerns," said counselor Gail Luna.
Indeed it does. It is a far cry from the sharp, sterile shop environment of the rest of Bldg. 3001.
Despite the pretty environment, the team of six counselors and an assistant average 600 contacts, including formal and informal complaints, each year.
Paula Cochnauer, EEO manager, said resolving complaints is an important function to the warfighter mission.
"One of our primary objectives is to try to get everyone to work together and do what they are paid to do," Ms. Cochnauer said.
The team provides counseling for Tinker Air Force Base civilian employees, excluding contractors, who believe they have suffered from discrimination.
The counselor's job is to usher the complainant through the EEO complaints process.
A common misconception of those seeking counseling is that counselors will assist, advise and even defend them against claims of discrimination.
"We are neutral," Ms. Luna said.
The office does not represent management or complainants, Ms. Cochnauer said.
Each case is approached objectively by conducting an inquiry into allegations of discrimination.
Ms. Luna said sometimes complainants are angry because their expectations for 'help' are not met.
"It's hard to express anger to your boss or another co-worker, but you can get angry at the counselor," Ms. Luna said.
"It doesn't bother me that people express their anger to me. I won't say it doesn't touch me, because I have empathy for everyone that comes in my office," she said.
Ms. Luna said sometimes complaints are exacerbated by personal issues outside of the workplace.
"We let people vent, whether they file or not, it helps for a healthier employee," Ms. Luna said.
She said in the past year, she has referred more people to other counseling source such as the Employee Assistance Program or the chaplain.
Ms. Luna said the many changes are also a source of anxiety and increased complaints.
"If there is reorganization, our office is going to get busy," she said.
Despite the source of the allegation, each complaint is very serious business and demands the utmost attention, Ms. Cochnauer said.
"Violations of the law are very serious and may be costly," Ms. Cochnauer said. "Acts of discrimination, whether perceived or real, can cause disruptions and conflicts in the workplace."
Dr. Johnna Shamp, organizational psychologist for the Office of Personnel Management said 65 percent of workplace problems deal with strained relations, not lack of motivation or skill.
Besides not being able to perform specified duties to contribute to the overall mission, litigating complaints costs millions of dollars yearly. Despite the large number of complaints, only 20 percent are actually formal complaints, equating to about 120 complaints.
Ms. Cochnauer said the complaints process can last for months or years and on average, litigation can cost $16,000 to $18,000 per case, not including actual cost paid out as a result of a settlement or findings of discrimination.
However, the complaints office is able to resolve disputes 80 percent of the time, with the help of the Alternative Dispute Resolution office.
"ADR is the main reason only 20 percent of contacts end up in the formal stage of the process," Ms. Cochnauer said.
ADR uses several methods of early intervention, including mediation and facilitation to resolve disputes. During mediation, both parties meet with a certified mediator and come to a mutual agreement. Facilitation includes an intermediary that facilitates mutual agreements without both parties meeting.
Terry Hirons, ADR program manager, said the problem is generally a lack of communication that stems from perceptions and misconceptions.
"When they sit down and meet with a neutral third-party, it's amazing," Mr. Hirons said.
"The parties began to communicate, the gray matter is wiped away and in most cases, a healthier more productive work environment results," he said.
In 1999, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission mandated the use of ADR. Last year, 72 percent of the cases referred to ADR were resolved successfully. Of 333 attempts, 242 cases were resolved.
Ms. Cochnauer said while it is hard to show real dollar savings, the complaints office can show cost avoidance. If all 600 contacts resulted in a formal complaint, about $10 million could be spent on litigating discrimination cases.
Utilizing early intervention techniques to reduce formal complaints earned the office national recognition this past May.
Ms. Cochnauer was awarded the Air Force Distinguished Equal Opportunity award in the Complaints System for 2007. The Air Force level honor was awarded to Ms. Cochnauer for her exceptional ability in counseling and resolving EEO complaints of discrimination.
The office looks forward to some upcoming changes. The military equal opportunity office will be merging with the civilian equal employment opportunity office in January. Ms. Cochnauer said the effort will combine the knowledge and skill of both the military and the civilians to handle any type of case.