Interior pursues diverse, satisfied workforce

Monday - 2/27/2012, 10:45am EST

John Burden, chief diversity officer, Department of Interior

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Federal agencies are under a range of specific mandates to maintain diversity in the workplace. John Burden, the Interior Department's chief diversity officer, told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin what Interior's diversity plan looks like and what he thinks is the best way to achieve the agency's goals.

"My job is to focus the workforce on those behaviors that drive an inclusion work environment, as opposed to focusing on representations totally, which is the function of the [Equal Employment Opportunity] office," Burden said.

Interior's diversity plan was put in place on Aug. 16, 2010, when Secretary Ken Salazar issued his inclusive workplace strategy, setting down the diversity and inclusion goals for the department.

"We're focusing on long-term organizational success and sustainability," Burden said. "The secretary instructed leadership to maximize efforts to recruit and hire exceptional individuals and to keep the talent in Interior."

Burden admitted that the definition of "diversity" has evolved over recent years. Rather than get caught up in that debate, Interior decided to focus on a "diversity principle," in which everyone is unique and has a unique contribution to make. "That has been resonated with the workforce, as opposed to relying on a fuzzy definition of diversity," he said.

John Burden, chief diversity officer, Interior Department (DoI photo)

Interior has been working to strengthen its management processes and procedures that enable diversity and inclusion. "We historically have done well in bringing people in the front door, but we've had this revolving door where they would leave ... Part of the inclusive workplace strategy is definitely focused on that retention piece," Burden said.

In the Partnership for Public Service's 2011 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, Interior saw a slightly higher number of satisfied employees in the agency's support of diversity.

"We're satisfied that we're headed in the right direction, based on that improvement, a slight improvement I may add," Burden said. "But we think we have a long ways to go."

He said the department will use the survey results as a quantitative measure of how well it's doing, but will continue to focus on changing the culture within the organization.

"We've seen indicators that it's starting to shift, and we think the culture, in the end, is what drives the numbers," Burden said. "If we can continue with the progress we're making on changing the culture within Interior to be more inclusive, we think the numbers will take care of themselves."

When asked what advice he had for other agencies looking to improve the diversity of their workforces, Burden said Interior found success when it shifted the focus of its diversity training from EEO compliance to developing talent management.

"We've moved diversity-inclusion dialogue among our managers and supervisors from being about what our bureaus and offices can do for diversity to what diversity can do for the Department of Interior, in terms of game-changing performance outcomes," Burden said.

The training protocol provides pathways for supervisors and managers to explore the issues surrounding diversity in a non-threatening manner.

Burden also pointed to Interior's diversity change agent program as something that other agencies might want to adopt.

"Our change agents keep diversity front of mind by initiating and engaging in job-relevant conversations that position diversity and inclusion as continuing mission-critical issues and imperatives," Burden said.