Friday, August 5, 2011

St. Louis Equal Employment Opportunity team earns top USACE honors

By Mike W. Petersen
St. Louis District Public Affairs
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Louis District’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office was presented the USACE 2011 Equal Employment Opportunity Program Trophy at the USACE Senior Leaders Conference in New Orleans August 1. 
Tandika Gates, District EEO Officer, has been with St. Louis District for 16 years and headed the program for the last three. Her experience with the district has helped reshape perceptions of the EEO program through active engagement throughout the district.
“When I assumed this position in 2008, my goal was to establish relationships with employees, and for employees and managers not to see EEO as a problem, because that was the perception: when you see EEO, there’s a problem,” Gates said. “We’ve rebuilt relationships with employees and managers, and the confidentiality and trust in the process have increased. People trust we’re going to do the right thing.”
Improving perceptions of the EEO program through relationship building with employees and managers has helped make conflict resolution a smoother process, according to Gates.
“People have to know you,” she said. “I tell them ‘don’t put your trust in me, trust in the process and that we’ll do the right thing.’”
The other members of the St. Louis EEO team - Johnnie Caswell, Laverne Holden and Paula Bell – are all relatively new to the district and the career field. However, their short time in the career field has already yielded valuable experiences.  Though the district doesn’t have a high volume of complaints, according to Gates, her team processes complaints at district, division, USACE and Army headquarters levels.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into the district,” said Laverne Holden, an EEO specialist who joined the St. Louis District after working as an EEO technician for the Army for a year. “We’re getting experience on the level of career EEO folks. It is challenging, but it keeps us motivated. We love helping people and we love resolving conflicts. It’s been an awesome opportunity, and more people have come to us with their cases because they know we’ll give them real-time answers and attention.”
Gates sees the district improving in better representation of women, minorities and people with disabilities in the workforce, but wants to further develop how the district reaches out to the diverse population of the St. Louis area and create a better understanding of what the Corps does. Another shift in workplace diversity that Gates and her team are looking at how the district can embrace the generation gap.
“I don’t want the district to see this award and think that we’re all the way there,” she said. “Diversity is more than race and sex.  For the first time in history, we have four generations in the workforce. As a manager, not just as an employee, you have to understand that your coworkers come different generations. They receive information differently, and they have different work ethics and values because of generation they were raised in.”
The Chief Office of Equal Employment Opportunity established the annual award to recognize outstanding EEO Programs in their support of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Department of Defense and Department of the Army requirements and standards.  The award is designed to recognize the organization and its responsible program management officials who during the previous year demonstrated excellence and who have led or performed work that is recognized as important to successful USACE EEO principles. The first time the award has been earned by St. Louis.
To Gates, the success of the St. Louis District EEO office represents more than a win for her team. It serves as a milestone for the district as a whole.
“The award is not just about what EEO is doing, but what the district is doing here and in the field. We’re the first district in the Corps with a reasonable accommodation van, and lately we’ve seen an increase in women and minorities promoted to management positions,” Gates said. “The EEO program is not my program; it’s the commander’s program. We just serve as his eyes and ears.”

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