July 5, 2022

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Judiciary Releases Workplace Conduct Working Group Report, Recommends 9 Changes to Build on Progress Made to Date

In a wide-ranging report (pdf), the Judiciary’s Workplace Conduct Working Group said its program to ensure an exemplary workplace has achieved broad improvements, by adding abusive conduct to longstanding protections against discrimination and harassment, imposing an express prohibition on abusive conduct, and improving processes to make it easier for employees to report and resolve workplace concerns.

The Working Group also made nine new recommendations, including a “nationwide climate survey, disseminated at regular intervals to all Judiciary employees.” The Working Group also recommended that the Judiciary assess incorporating additional remedies for employees who experience misconduct. And it further recommended that employment complaints be examined by judges from different courts than where the complaint originates.

“The federal Judiciary is committed, without reservation, to sustaining an exemplary workplace and to the well-being of all its employees,” the report said. “The Judiciary’s work is not done. After reflecting on the major changes already made, this report recommends that the Judiciary adopt more tools and policies to build on the progress to date.”

One of the most impactful changes described in the report is a multi-layered network of workplace conduct specialists who can provide employees confidential guidance and assistance on concerns about workplace conduct. Since 2018, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has established a national Office of Judicial Integrity, and all the Judiciary’s circuits have hired a Director of Workplace Relations who bring wide-ranging experience and expertise to their roles. Individual courts have trained and certified Employment Dispute Resolution coordinators.

“This increased level of assistance has improved the experience of Judiciary employees, including those who work in chambers and other isolated settings,” the report said. “If an employee needs help or guidance, the assistance of trained professionals who understand workplace issues is available every step of the way. The request for help remains confidential and, if the employee chooses, completely independent of the court’s chain of command.”

The report emphasizes that the addition of informal advice options has been highly successful in resolving issues. These additional avenues are in direct response to employees’ concerns that the more formal process could discourage reporting situations that call for a less formal measure, such as abusive behavior. In fact, the Working Group concluded that abusive behavior, rather than sexual harassment, is the most common form of wrongful conduct in the Judiciary.

The circuit-level Directors of Workplace Relations have reported that the new informal resolution options have been highly utilized and “have provided opportunities for a variety of interventions that would not have been possible if employees were uncomfortable either coming forward or engaging in a more formal process,” the report said.

Policy changes also have supported employees in reporting possible misconduct. Improvements include strong provisions ensuring confidentiality and impartiality. For instance, the Judiciary has revised its confidentiality policies to clarify that confidentiality obligations for employees never prohibit them from bringing forward reports of misconduct. And Codes of Conduct now require judges and Judiciary employees to take appropriate action upon learning of potential misconduct.

The report added that, “since 2018, there has been a dramatic increase in training related to workplace conduct.” Chief judges, judges, and unit executives are actively engaged in training, and they are leading by example through their personal commitment to maintaining an exemplary workplace.

The report recommended that the Judiciary’s strategy for an exemplary workplace continue its current course.

“As this report demonstrates, the recommendations made by the Working Group in 2018 are proving effective, and they are well designed to meet the workplace needs of federal Judiciary employees within the unique governance structure of the Branch,” the report said. “Change is happening, and it is happening at the courthouse — the place where employees work and where the authority to address workplace issues actually resides.”

The report’s nine policy recommendations will be referred to various committees of the Judicial Conference of the United States. The Conference, which sets policy for the Judiciary, adopted more than 30 recommendations made in the Working Group’s initial report in 2018.

The nine recommendations are:

  1. Conduct a nationwide climate survey, disseminated at regular intervals to all Judiciary employees, to assess the workplace environment and to provide insight into the prevalence of workplace conduct issues and the impact and effectiveness of the improvements the Judiciary has made to its policies and processes.
  2. Augment annual Employment Dispute Resolution-related data collection to include data related to Informal Advice contacts, while ensuring that confidentiality is protected.
  3. Enhance the Formal Complaint process by revising the Model EDR Plan to specify that an employee complaint be overseen by a Presiding Judicial Officer from outside the court from which the complaint originated.
  4. Develop an express policy regarding romantic relationships that exist or develop between employees where there is a supervisory or evaluative relationship.
  5. Assess incorporation of additional monetary remedies as part of the Employment Dispute Resolution complaint process.
  6. Direct the Office of Judicial Integrity, with the assistance of the Directors of Workplace Relations, to issue an annual Judiciary workplace conduct report.
  7. Expand outreach and engagement to include further outreach to law schools, and ongoing communications with employee focus groups and advisory groups to share concerns about workplace needs.
  8. Strengthen annual EDR training by Revising the Model EDR Plan to emphasize that courts and employing offices have a responsibility to ensure that EDR training is offered and accessible to all employees and judges on an annual basis, and to take affirmative steps to ensure completion.
  9. Develop a system for regular review of the Judiciary’s workplace conduct policies to ensure comprehensive implementation across courts and circuits.