What’s a union to do when management distributes cash performance awards as it sees fit without any negotiated formal criteria?  A lot, even if the FSIP said the agency could do it that way. The agency still must comply with all relevant the laws and regulations–and there are several a union could use to make the agency regret insisting on total discretion. We have covered some in previous posts concerning disparate impact claims. So, let’s look at some others by describing what it would look like if managers had complete discretion. 

An agency typically will have employees distributed across several organizational components, located in dozens if not hundreds of offices, where they worked in groups of ten or so under individual managers. Let’s also assume that the only agency-wide control imposed was only a budgetary one, e.g., limiting every second line manager to distributing awards that in total do not exceed one (1) percent of his/her employees’ total annual salary.

At the end of the award year the union could request award data under 5 CFR 293.311, FOIA, and/or through the labor statue assuming it had a particularized need, e.g., in contemplation of a grievance, to prepare for negotiations, to ensure regulatory compliance.

Let’s assume the union asked the agency to give it a spreadsheet listing the following for every employee with the names sanitized: appraisal rating/score, grade, step, date of last award, amount of current year award, if any, organizational component, second line supervisor identification, and group or unit designation.  Armed with that data the union should be able to determine whether the lower-level managers unilaterally imposed a system or formula of their own without telling the union, e.g., employees needed an overall appraisal score of 3.25 to qualify, everyone with a rating of 3.5 or above got a bonus, the amount of the award was tied to the employee’s grade, etc.  If the union can find managers adopted patterns, it can then file a ULP grievance claiming that management unilaterally implemented a policy or practice without notice and bargaining with the union.  The remedy would likely be to demand negotiations with retroactive effect to any agreement reached.  Should that agreement generate back pay for some employees, the union could also get attorney fees. Check out “NTEU Reels in $2.6 Million” and NTEU, 63 FLRA 505 (2009)

Another liability the agency has once the union gets the data is the sharing of that information with employees.  We doubt employees of one group would be happy if they found that employees in a similar group had lower award criteria or got more money in their awards for identical ratings and similar work.  Releasing that kind of information can make management very quickly regret its decision not to work out a formula with the union so that the union is standing alongside it justifying the formula.

But the biggest liability an agency has when it insists on retaining total discretion about who gets awards is that the union can encourage members to file grievances and/or charges claiming illegal discrimination based on disparate treatment.  (Actually, the union doesn’t need employee approval to file the grievance, but it would really help.) Under the law if two similarly situated employees of an agency are treated differently and they are of different races, genders, national origins, ages or disability status, the harmed employee often will have a legitimate discrimination claim.  It is not as hard to prove as you may think and can generate considerable settlement power even if you can’t fully prove your allegations.

There is a federal employee case known as Lisa K. Russell v. Anthony J. Principi, Secretary of Veterans Affairs. (D.C. Cir, 2001) Ms. Russell charged that she did not receive a performance award because of illegal discrimination.  The court said, “If Plaintiff could prove that [s]he failed to receive a monetary award because of unlawful racial or national origin discrimination, [s]he could recover compensation under Title VII.”  It then listed three things the employee must prove to toss the burden onto the agency to come up with a good explanation of why it did not grant an award to the harmed employee.  The employee need only establish:

  • she is a member of a protected class;
  • she suffered an adverse employment action; and
  • the unfavorable action gives rise to an inference of discrimination. (Typically that is done by pointing to a similarly situated employee who got an award the grievant didn’t or a bigger award, e.g., works for the same award decision-maker, same job, grade, performance rating,

Everyone is in a protected class so long as the person treated better than him/her was of a different race, gender, age, national origin, or disability status.  This court and others have held that denial of an award are adverse employment actions.

Once the employee demonstrates those three things, the agency has to identify a legitimate reason for treating the grievant less favorably. As soon as the agency places that reason(s) on the record, the union and employee get to show it is false, based on incorrect facts, invalid, or even seriously inconsistent with agency regulations.  Showing the stated management reason is not proper is called showing that it was a pretext for something else. (If the collective bargaining agreement or agency regulations/policies require that award decisions be based on the fair and equitable treatment of employees (or some similar measures), the union’s challenge to the stated management reason for the disparity could be sustained even if the arbitrator does not find it was illegal discrimination.

If the union and employee succeed in showing it was pretext, generally the arbitrator, hearing officer or judge decides there was illegal discrimination.  The normally appropriate remedy is to give the employee the award retroactively, with interest, attorney fees, an opportunity to prove compensable damages up to $300,000 and an order that the agency show cause why it has should not discipline the manager who made the discriminatory decision.

To give you a better idea of the activity and pressure a broad union challenge of disparate treatment discrimination could create on management we have outlined a hypothetical comparison of the award distributions in one work group. Without knowing anything more the union could reasonably allege that:

Employee 6 is potentially a victim in comparison to Employees 1 and 7 based on Gender, Race, and Age.

Employee 5 is potentially a victim in comparison to Employee 4 based on Race and Age given #5 higher appraisal score and lower award.

Employee 3 is potentially a victim in comparison to Employees 1 based on Race.

Filing a grievance or even EEO discrimination claim would force the manager to explain on the record the reasoning and evidence behind each of these decisions.  The odds are worth the effort that the union will learn something about what management did and why, perhaps identify a violation of law, and demonstrate to management why management needs the union’s input and support when making award decisions.

Employee Gender Age Race Appraisal Award
1 Female Under 40 White 4.0 $1,000.00
2 Female Under 40 Hispanic 3.5 $500.00
3 Female Under 40 Black 4.0 $500.00
4 Male Under 40 Asian 4.5 $1,200.00
5 Male Over 40 Hispanic 5.0 $1,000.00
6 Male Over 40 Black 4.0 None
7 Female Under 40 White 4.0 $500.00


We have given you a very quick and generalized overview of this approach.  Given that the law is involved, check with a union attorney for specific guidance if you come across something that looks worth pursuing.

About AdminUN

FEDSMILL staff has over 40 years of federal sector labor relations experience on the union as well as management side of the table and even some time as a neutral.
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