Environmental Factor, February 2005, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
EEO Office: One Mission, Many Roles
Kathy Odenwald takes her job very seriously, but that does not mean she can't enjoy it.
For Odenwald, who heads the Equal Employment Opportunity Office at NIEHS, it's all about people. Her cheerful and bubbly personality makes her a natural for social interaction - casual chats that actually provide valuable insight into the NIEHS work environment.
Under the law, all employees have the right to work and advance on the basis of merit and ability. The law further requires fairness and consistency in management practices to ensure those rights. The scope of EEO activities extends well beyond the law and into the arena of helping people reach their potential. Satisfied employees are always better employees, and Odenwald makes it her business to monitor the work environment.
It is not uncommon to find Odenwald in her office, chatting over tea with NIEHS employees and department heads about work issues. This is one of Odenwald's methods of keeping her finger on the pulse of the work environment, and it enables her to identify issues that, when identified early, can sometimes be diverted before they become problems. The EEO serves not only government employees, but also contractors who do not have an on-site supervisor, post-doctoral researchers and visiting fellows.
The EEO Office has four major functions designed to improve the working environment: complaint management, affirmative employment, which used to be called affirmative action, national outreach and cultural education.
The objective of complaint management within EEO is to resolve the problem at the lowest possible level. Informal complaints are handled through EEO counselors and the NIH Alternative Dispute Resolution Center. Formal complaints are channeled to NIH and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Affirmative Employment Program, another vital function of the office also dictated by law, is not about color and race, Odenwald said. Ethnic representation in the work force is not based on simple demographics, but on a more complex formula to ensure the work force reflects the diversity of the civilian labor force. Closely tied to that program are national outreach activities designed to encourage minority college students to be trained at NIEHS. That experience is invaluable as they start their career paths.
Odenwald prefers a proactive approach to EEO issues. She routinely issues e-mail bulletins to supervisors, educating them about EEO issue and presenting analysis. For example, a recent bulletin addressed how to evaluate whether the existence of a heavy accent is a valid criterion for an employment decision. Another e-mail addressed age discrimination issues.
Meanwhile, Virginia Ivanoff, EEO specialist, focuses on educating the masses. She is a non-voting member of the NIEHS Diversity Council, which was formed by the director. The council acts as an advisory body to the director and promotes an inclusive working environment. The EEO Office and the Diversity Council co-sponsor a number of cultural education activities including presentations by NIEHS researchers about their home countries, languages and cultures. The EEO also offers language classes for NIEHS employees. Among the languages offered in the past are Japanese, Spanish, French, Arabic and American Sign Language. The EEO and the Diversity Council co-sponsor ethnic history month activities such as Black History Month in February.
"Learning about different cultures and languages is like building bridges. It creates understanding," Ivanoff said.
The NIEHS EEO is also a source of information on ways to improve job skills or find jobs more suited to someone's specific skills. Ivanoff compiles a list of federal jobs open in North Carolina and posts it weekly in the announcements folder.
As of Oct. 1, 2004, when the federal fiscal year began, the NIEHS EEO was absorbed by NIH as part of an overall restructuring that also consolidated human resources and facilities-management functions. Odenwald and Ivanoff are among 50 EEO employees consolidated under NIH. They are assigned to the Division of IC Services. They will remain at NIEHS as will Gerard Roman, who is now assigned to the Division of Policy Planning, Programs and Diversity Management in the NIH EEO Office.