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SEPTA taps Elliott to carry EEO banner


"I believe in knights on white horses, and that people need opportunities to stand up for themselves," says Carla Elliott.

As Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) newly appointed director of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action, she plans to help provide those opportunities — the principal reason she decided to practice law. ("That and because I enjoyed reading court cases," she says.)

After passing the Pennsylvania bar exam, Elliott worked in the commonwealth’s Social Security office for 10 years as EEO coordinator. Then she taught foreign language in a secondary school. Returning to her equal-rights focus, Elliott joined SEPTA in December 1994, spending four years as EEO specialist, followed by two as project manager of policies and procedures. And now she’s less than a month into her director post.

"It’s a definite career path I picked for myself," she says. "I’m lucky SEPTA saw me as an asset and gave me this kind of responsibility."

That responsibility has three distinct areas: prepare an affirmative action plan and communicate its goals to management, investigate complaints — from both internal and external sources — and proactively train and instruct SEPTA employees and management.

She describes her primary challenge as "helping people see what’s going on from another perspective and hoping to modify people’s behavior so we don’t have a need for litigation and complaints."

And she concedes that more equal opportunity inroads have been made in some areas than in others. For example, majority and minority racial groups are well-represented as bus drivers, but Elliot says SEPTA would like to have more female drivers.

As for SEPTA’s rail operations, she says management has encouraged non-traditional applicants, but some groups remain under-represented.

"In any environment that can trace its roots back 100 years or so, you tend to have problems where the rest of the workforce has progress," she says, adding that she sees change coming in passenger transportation where its own customer base — the riders — see public transit as a good job and enter the field.

Part of her job also includes helping current employees and management change their work environments when necessary. If and when internal-complaint investigations would be substantiated, Elliott and her team would counsel the individual. And if the individual refused to alter behavior, disciplinary action would eventually enter the equation.

"We do have a stick that goes along with the carrot," says Elliott, adding that the department has in the past recommended people for such action. "Clearly the individual employee has been put on notice."

But the reverse could happen, too. Sometimes employees perceive unfair treatment where there is none.

"We’ve been able to provide information and support where a person chooses to sue and the agency has acted fairly," Elliott says. "You may have us supporting either side."

And she has management’s full support.

"There is an understanding of what the law requires and appreciation of the need to have an office that looks at the law and not the ideology of the day," she says.

But her first order of business is to restore confidence in the office, which has been without leadership for the better part of 18 months. She’ll need to rejuvenate employee credibility in what her staff does and create confidence in how they do it, says Elliott.

"When you don’t have a hand at the rudder and a captain at the wheel, the ship can flounder."

Kathi Kube

To discuss equal employment opportunity and other management issues, follow this link to Management Discussion Forum

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 10/20/2000