Survey: Diversity initiative is a tough sell for many

Wednesday - 3/14/2012, 3:20pm EDT

Emily Kopp, reporter, Federal News Radio

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Federal employees are far from sold on strategies to increase diversity and inclusion among their ranks, according to the results of an exclusive Federal News Radio survey.

President Barack Obama issued an executive order in August directing agencies to focus on hiring, retaining and promoting people with a variety of backgrounds. He called on senior officials to identify barriers and develop strategies to overcome them. Those plans are due Friday.

Federal News Radio conducted an online survey of federal employees to find out what they thought of their agencies' efforts thus far and Obama's initiative. With more than 900 respondents, the survey revealed a variety of answers depending on their race, ethnicity and gender.

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Graphic depicts diversity among the general population, General Schedule employees, and members of the Senior Executive Service. Click the tabs to switch views.

General Population

General Schedule

Senior Executive Service

    While the General Schedule workforce generally reflects the diversity of the U.S. population, the percentage of Caucasians increases at the Senior Executive Service level. Federal employee stats from OPM. U.S. population stats from 2010 U.S. Census Bureau. Census statistics allow Latinos to identify themselves in more than one category.

    The results do not surprise Susan Grunin, human capital consulting director for RGS, who analyzed them for Federal News Radio.

    When it comes to the issue of diversity, "you're going to look at it from your own personal experience," she said.

    Federal News Radio posted the survey online February 28-March 8 and 934 people responded. Fifty-four percent described themselves as "Caucasian." Three out of 10 said they were African-American or black. The remaining 23 percent described themselves as Latino, Asian, Native American or multiracial. More than half of participants were female. Fifty-six percent described themselves as at grade level 13 or above. They came from a variety of agencies, including Defense, Agriculture, Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration.

    Survey respondents felt either that emphasizing diversity was "overkill," or they believed that increasing diversity would benefit them, she said.

    Survey Results
    Federal News Radio conducted an online survey of more than 900 federal employees.

    Click on the images for detailed views and breakdowns of responses to two of the survey questions.

    My agency does a good job of hiring, retaining and promoting a diverse group of employees.


    Click for breakdown by demographics.
    Will the executive order to promote employee diversity make a difference at your agency?


    Click for breakdown by demographics.

    Results reveal a wide gap

    Seven in 10 of the white men who responded to the survey either agreed or somewhat agreed that their agencies did a good job of hiring, retaining and promoting a diverse group of employees.

    "The Midtown Manhattan office of the IRS has more diversity than the United Nations!" wrote someone who said they worked there.

    White men were more likely than either women or people who described themselves as either black, Latino, Asian, Native American or multiracial to say that efforts to increase diversity detract from really important issues. When asked how important they thought it was to increase diversity at their agency, 31 percent of white men gave that response. Another 24 percent said it was not important because their agency was already very diverse. Only 19 percent said it was essential to their agency's mission. The remaining 24 percent said it was nice but not critical.

    "When diversity outweighs competence, you fail," said a white man who works at the Defense Department.

    On the other hand, more than half of white women and nearly seven in 10 people of color either agreed or somewhat agreed that there was a glass ceiling at their agency when it came to promoting people of all backgrounds.

    "They pay a lot of lip service to it and do a lot of 'posturing,' but little permanent progress made," wrote one respondent about her agency. She described herself as a white woman who works for the National Park Service.

    Forty-four percent of white women and 70 percent of people of color said increasing diversity was a must for their agency to serve an increasingly diverse public.

    "A diverse community needs to see themselves at the table," said a Latino manager at the Federal Aviation Administration. "The FAA strives to ensure safety to all the flying public. We know diversity is essential to our mission." Regardless of whether they said diversity was important, however, a sizeable percentage of people from various backgrounds voiced skepticism over the president's initiative.

    When asked "Will the executive order make a difference at your agency?" A third of respondents selected "No, it's just a political ploy."

    Through comments, they also expressed concern about how their agency would implement its strategy.

    "The agency is taking it as law at the expense of the employees with skill to offer," said a Department of Agriculture worker who described himself as Caucasian and black.

    People focus on 'diversity', not 'inclusion'

    The results indicate that most people think of diversity in terms of color, heritage and gender. Moreover, they say their agencies would agree.

    "My agency thinks diversity = race," wrote a Food and Drug Administration employee who described herself as multiracial.

    People have been slow to adopt a broader definition of the word, Grunin said.

    "Historically, we started with affirmative action, went to [equal employment opportunity], went to diversity and now, when we talk about diversity and inclusion, they're missing that whole, big definition that inclusion is everyone, including white males," she said.

    The Office of Personnel Management defines workforce diversity as "a collection of individual attributes that together help agencies pursue organizational objectives efficiently and effectively" in its guidance to agencies.

    That includes education, training and skills, Grunin said.

    Agencies should be looking for people who "don't have the same paradigms," rather than focusing on race, ethnicity or gender, she said.

    In addition to diversifying all ranks of their workforce, agencies are supposed to "create a culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness to enable individuals to participate to their full potential," according to Obama's executive order.

    That's an easy sell to some agencies. It's "an operational imperative" at the Department of Defense, said Capt. Ken Barrett, deputy director of diversity management and equal opportunity.

    "We look at all the different traits and attributes that people bring to the table. It's not just about race, ethnicity, and gender. We look at language skills, we look at cultural competencies, cultural expertise, and regional expertise and how we're able to leverage that inside the department," he said. "It's about driving innovation into the organization. How do we empower those to infuse new ideas that are going to be the next big game changer?"

    When employees feel empowered, they're more likely to stay with the organization, he said.

    Improving retention is one of the three main goals of the executive order. "Inclusion is a big part of that," Barrett said.

    Convincing the skeptics

    Federal employees have seen presidents, each with their own agendas, come and go. Many respondents said they thought Obama's executive order on diversity and inclusion would fall by the wayside.

    "It's well intentioned like many of our President's mandates, but will be ignored like all the others," said a white woman at the Social Security Administration.

    "Until the people and their attitudes change at the GS-15 and [Senior Executive Service] levels, the executive order will not make a difference," said a black man at the Defense Department's Office of Inspector General.

    Federal workers are looking for leaders who "walk the talk," said Federally Employed Women Diversity Chairwoman Georgia Thomas. The organization recently sent out a questionnaire to its members on these issues.

    FEW members praised agencies "that engaged their employees and management together to make recommendations," she said. "They felt that the leaders walked the talk, set an example, and showed that they wanted and welcomed differences in thought and opinion."

    Top officials' commitment helped drive an aggressive effort to diversify the Navy. The Defense Department's Barrett oversaw that effort when he led the Navy's diversity directorate a few years ago.

    Leaders had to frame the issue in a way that resonates with every employee, the Defense Department's Barrett said.

    "You have to be able to clearly articulate what is diversity and inclusion and what types of things you're doing inside your organization," he said. "How you talk about it, how you do it and having sustained communication on it are critical for the organization to move forward."

    But "for this to be successful, you have to have engagement at all levels," said Channing Phillips, senior counsel to Attorney General Eric Holder at the Department of Justice, which also has begun implementing a diversity plan. DoJ will evaluate middle-to-upper managers on their adherence to the diversity plan, he said. The agency already holds senior executives accountable in their performance reviews.

    It also has set up diversity committees in its field offices. The committees include lawyers, secretaries, law enforcement officers and others who represent various viewpoints.

    "There is a mechanism now in every component for people to get involved," said Phillips.

    Agencies need to go even further, said Grunin of RGS. Increased diversity of opinions brings more conflict.

    At NASA, "they've trained all employees on how to have a good dialogue, listen, be more engaged and have those conflict-management tools at their fingertips so they can really embrace a more diverse and inclusive culture," she said.

    "Some agencies are doing well at this. Some don't know where to start," she added.

    Graphics by Federal News Radio's Andrew Mazzocchi and Jolie Lee.

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