The federal agency that investigates complaints of workplace discrimination has a new chief for its Dallas district office.
Travis Nicholson’s appointment comes after complaints were filed last year alleging discrimination at the Dallas office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When asked if he had been brought in to foster a healthier work environment, Nicholson replied, “I wouldn’t say that.”
“I would say that I hope throughout my career, that I have built a reputation as someone who can build trust, someone who collaborates well with others and someone who is a good communicator” , said Nicholson, who most recently served as the EEOC’s deputy. district manager in Houston. “And I hope someone saw something in me to say, ‘This guy can shake things up and get things done. “”
He takes on this new role just over a year after the EEOC president ordered a review of the work climate in the Dallas District after USA today complaints of internal discrimination uncovered.
At the time of the report, Belinda McCallister was director of the 100-employee district office and was accused of ‘facilitating harassment and discrimination’, according to USA today. She is now in a new role, Nicholson said.
The EEOC’s Dallas office investigates discrimination complaints from more than 200 counties in North, Central, and West Texas. He handled about 4,500 complaints last year and won more than $32 million in fines for 1,550 people.
Nicholson, 51, grew up in Detroit before joining the US Army for 12 years right out of high school.
“It was really interesting to leave because I was worried about getting a job that gave me the same sense of purpose that I experienced in the US military,” he said.
He joined the EEOC in 2009 as a bilingual investigator in Detroit and moved to his district of Charlotte as outreach and education coordinator before moving to Houston in 2017.
Nicholson sat down with The Dallas Morning News to discuss the type of complaints he sees coming to the EEOC and how the agency is working to respond to them. His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Dallas office received 4,500 complaints of discrimination last year. How does the region compare to the rest of the nation? What is the most common complaint?
Complaints are fairly consistent from district to district. We have 15 districts and the Washington field office. Retaliation is still the #1 issue, and it’s been fairly constant since around 2010.
What are the different outcomes that flow from filing a complaint?
Remedies take many, many different forms. If the evidence and facts support the charge, we can send it to court. Or we can engage with the employer and request things like training, financial relief, and review their policies. Other types of relief may be due if the party charged with the accusation was not hired or was not promoted or was fired. They may be liable for an arrears of wages. Often the employer makes the decision whether or not to fire someone. If they keep anyone, it’s at their own risk. But they just need to be aware that if something else happens with this person, then you have increased potential for liability.
What breed-related complaints do you see?
You still have cases of overt racial discrimination, things like nooses in the workplace or name-calling. But these are perhaps less common than someone saying someone of a different race was treated more favorably, like a promotion. No one wants to be recorded as saying or doing something overtly racist. But it’s often in the practice of how the employer operates that we see systemic issues where there’s a denial of promotion, wages are paid differently, or someone doesn’t have opportunities for advancement.
What complaints do you see related to gender?
You will see inappropriate comments, jokes, image sharing and touching. One allegation we have seen is: “You have to be home and take care of your children because you are a woman. Often the accused will say, “I didn’t mean it that way. Or there’s just complete disregard because, they say, “I’m responsible so I can say or behave as I please.” You also see employers who do not want women in certain types of jobs because they are traditionally male jobs. And then, of course, we still see issues of pay inequality between men and women, even when they are given the same opportunities.
What about sexual orientation?
People try to characterize how a man or woman should behave or act, or who they should fall in love with, who they should date, and who they should keep company with.
Do you receive complaints about the use of pronouns?
It happens. Even more blatantly and obnoxiously, we’ve heard people claim they’ve been called ‘it’, and that’s really harmful. I can’t even imagine anyone referring to me as an object.
What about complaints of religious discrimination?
What we see quite often are hosting issues. A person has made a request for some type of religious accommodation, for example, they may say, “I need this day of the week to observe my sincere religious belief.” And the employer may not have taken any action to address or respond to that particular employee request. You can have harassment with religion. Someone may not understand someone’s religious observance.
What is the most flagrant case you have investigated?
I’ve seen cases where an employer has essentially breached a person’s confidentiality regarding their disability in a very detrimental way. And there was a real reluctance on the part of the employer to accept what we were telling them as problematic.
How do you plan to handle the internal discrimination complaints that were made public in USA Today?
What we want is to have open conversations. What I do is have this dialogue with everyone in the district office, a group dialogue, an individual dialogue, because I want to understand what issues are important to them. How do you build that confidence at work? The EEOC should be a model employer. And part of that is fostering trust, respect, and inclusion in the workplace, because it increases job satisfaction.
What can employers do to help prevent complaints of discrimination?
It is easier to stay healthy than to recover if you are sick. And if you don’t get the education, if you don’t know, it’s really hard to avoid some of these situations. An employer can call the EEOC, never tell the EEOC where they are calling from, and seek advice. I had an employer call me once when I was in Charlotte who basically wanted to know if they could force an employee to speak English at all times in the workspace. And we had a conversation and I helped them, and they appreciated it. We therefore strongly encourage employers to contact us and do some training. We really enjoy engaging with employers outside of surveys.