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Diversity Matters to the Mission


State Department veterans remember when the best way to describe their colleagues was “pale, male and Yale.” It wasn’t just State. At most federal departments, at the professional and managerial ranks, you found white men with similar backgrounds. Diversifying – employment, business ownership, contracting, college enrollment – as a movement followed the civil rights movement, really taking hold in the 1980s as a follow-on and more sophisticated approach to inclusion than quotas.

It continues today. But the meaning of the term “diversity” has evolved a great deal since the days when it meant ensuring that different racial groups were fairly represented at all levels of organizations.

Veronica Villalobos describes 21st century diversity as “things that make people unique. It could be religious or gender. But also cognitive diversity – where people come from, their socio-economic background, their life experiences.” Villalobos is the director for strategic initiatives, training and compliance at the Office of Personnel Management. She’s part of the office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Federal workplace diversity got a shot in the arm last summer when President Obama signed an executive order (#13583) establishing a governmentwide diversity initiative. The order gives OPM a lot of responsibility for coordinating that initiative, along with the Office of Management and Budget and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The White House issued the order on August 18; agencies have 120 days from that date to come up with plans for diversity efforts, which Villalobos said must contain three elements that are also part of OPM’s strategic plan:

  • Diversity itself, meaning the make-up of the workforce
  • Inclusion, meaning that everyone in an agency participates, collaborates and is able to realize his or her potential.
  • Sustainability, meaning institutionalizing the culture and processes that result in the first two points.

Plans will also have to support the governmentwide effort.

“Plans will look different for each agency,” Villalobos said. And, she said, “No agency can have quotas for any group except people with disabilities,” where the federal government has set specific numbers.

“We’re telling agencies to be innovative in reaching their priorities and goals,” Villalobos said. “The emphasis should be on mentoring, how to develop your folks. Each workplace can be developed so people can reach their potential.”

She added, “This is why the front line supervisor is so important to a workplace that works for everyone.”

Villalobos’s deputy is Bruce Stewart. Stewart retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and formed his own diversity consulting company. He joined OPM three days before President Obama signed the EO.

Stewart stresses employee affinity groups as a way of getting people to think more diversely. He described these as “different people within an organization that share information across offices.” That is, not self-selecting groups based on, say, race or religions, but rather on function or interest, regardless of each person’s background. The result? “It increases the chances of interactions and knowledge sharing. It breaks down silos. Traditional groups built around race or gender are giving way to employee resource groups around identity in the workforce.”

Workforce diversity can’t increase unless diversity of hiring occurs. Villalobos and Stewart point out, awareness by hiring managers of their own unconscious biases can lead them to diversifying where they look for talent. Stewart said this line of thinking starts out with the idea that most people are in fact not prejudiced, but rather that they tend to go to the familiar sources when looking for people.

To help agencies with their diversity plans and with changing people’s thinking, OPM is developing new training modules covering new ways to develop collaborative teams and how to analyze social networks to find hidden influences.

Agencies must submit their plans by March 15. Villalobos said managers “should be ready to start implementing on March 16.” But, she said, an agency’s plan “doesn’t have to be long. Our [OMP’s] plan is 11 pages. OPM has issued a detailed, 32-page guidance document agencies can use to develop their plans. Much of the responsibility falls on the chief human capital officers.

One paragraph from this document is interesting for this market. It notes that IT and cybersecurity professionals, and also acquisition specialists, were in the top 15 positions most hired between 2008 and 2010. It states, “In each of these fields, research shows that hiring with an emphasis on cultural, experiential, and cognitive diversity will ensure agencies have a workforce that is capable of addressing the increasingly complex challenges more efficiently.”


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