Bad Form

A county official refuses to participate in "ethnic bean counting."


Morris County, New Jersey, Surrogate John Pecoraro surprised county officials when he refused to comply with a federal mandate that requires state and local governments to list the racial and ethnic background of their employees. No official in the county had ever objected to filling out the required survey. But Pecoraro, who heads an office that handles estates, wills, and adoption records for the county, says it was an easy decision for him to make.

"In my 25 years as a private employer, I always tried to look at my employees as individuals," says Pecoraro, who was elected surrogate in 1994. "I made a commitment never to look at an employee's ethnic background or race as a factor for promotions or hiring." So when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission survey crossed his desk last fall, Pecoraro told the county personnel director that he would not fill out a form that smacked of "ethnic bean counting."

"If I filled it out, I'd be a hypocrite," he says.

Michael Widomski, a spokesman for the EEOC, says that the survey is collected for statistical purposes. However, those statistics are used by federal agencies that investigate claims of racial discrimination in hiring, firing, or promotions.

Widomski says that instances in which officials refuse to fill out the form are rare, and the EEOC has gone to court to force compliance. That probably won't be necessary in this case, because Morris County officials have said they'll bypass Pecoraro and fill out the form themselves.

Pecoraro, who has between 12 and 15 employees at any given time, says he's not surprised by the county's decision. "Most officials get this form from the federal government and they say, 'I'm not going to stick my neck out,' so they fill it out," he says.