Merit vs. Race

By Brian Friel

On April 19, 2001 -- according to a complaint filed in federal court by disgruntled employees -- a manager at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia sent a subordinate supervisor an e-mail that read: "Harry, This year they're monitoring distribution of scores within the top category to make sure they're not all lumped at the top . . . to more balance the ethnic groups. Here's what I need you to do: MF OK; MM +2E; NMF -1E; NMM -5E."

Four days later, according to the complaint, the supervisor wrote back: "We reduced five NMM down to FS. We will up the score on one MM. . . . Of the four MM remaining in the branch with FS, none are performing well enough to have earned a higher score . . . and we cannot in good conscience give them a better rating when we are reducing the appraisals of five who are better performers."

Employees in the supervisor's branch say the e-mails show that their bosses reduced the ratings of five nonminority males from excellent to fully successful and increased the score of one minority male from fully successful to excellent - based not on merit but on race. The employees believe the managers were under pressure from their superiors to meet affirmative action goals by giving minority employees higher ratings, which could then lead to promotions. The Air Force has denied wrongdoing and has fought the employees' claim in court.

The case points to a continuing tension across the federal government between the ideal of a meritocracy on the one hand and the ideal of a diverse workplace on the other. Federal managers are encouraged to make hiring and promotion decisions based on qualifications and performance, but they also are often encouraged to consider applicants' or employees' race.

As a result, the federal workforce has a greater percentage of every minority group except Hispanics than does the general American workforce. The Office of Personnel Management is leading an effort to increase the number of Hispanics in government as well. As with the complainants at the Air Force, white men across government are increasingly upset by the consideration of race, particularly with promotion decisions. "There is simply no correlation between past performance and promotions," one federal supervisor says. "Your EEO code dictates your promotion potential in about 80 percent of the cases." At Robins Air Force Base, one affected employee notes: "Base employees want a fair shake. The Air Force has destroyed their morale."

In addition to complaints from whites, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistics suggest that even with programs that encourage minority hiring and promotions, minority employees are still more likely to believe they are victims of discrimination. In 2003, about 5,600 minorities in the federal government filed race-based discrimination claims against their bosses, compared with 2,100 whites. Specifically related to evaluations and appraisals, 372 minorities and 97 whites filed race-based complaints.

In an ideal workplace, managers would make hiring, appraisal and promotion decisions based solely on merit, and as a result, managerial and employee ranks would reflect the diversity of the workforce overall. Managers and employees would view all such decisions as fair. Cases like the one at Robins Air Force Base show that such ideals, whether real or perceived, are still some time in coming.