We Talk the Diversity Talk, But Does Your Agency Walk the Walk?

Most agencies have policies to facilitate diversity and sensitivity. Showing awareness or activism in this area may even be a part of your performance review. But be honest: do these policies really ensure that we walk the walk and truly embrace diversity in the workplace?

Workplace diversity is a really fashionable topic these days. It seems like there’s always a new webinar, training, or cultural event available to celebrate and encourage diversity. On one hand, I think it’s great that diversity seems to be at the forefront of our minds, and for those people who haven’t yet really embraced it, every little bit helps, right? Every webinar, every training, every EEO clause is just one step closer to achieving equality…right?

I would argue that these training sessions do reinforce forward-thinking principles for those who have already embraced them, but for those who haven’t, these messages are falling on deaf ears. I suppose there will always be people out there who hang on to antiquated beliefs, but I would argue that this tendency extends up the management chain.

I was disappointed to find out that while my agency does indeed keep statistics on the number of women and minorities employed by the agency, they are unwilling to publish these statistics outside the agency. Some of these statistics are circulated internally (those for women during Women’s History Month and those for blacks during Black History Month), but you’ll be hard pressed to find these statistics out there for public viewing. What’s worse is that often it appears that for the higher pay grades (GS-12 and above), the agency conveniently “forgets” to calculate these statistics, reporting for example total numbers of women in the workforce at each grade but conveniently leaving out the total number of employees at each grade, lest someone notice that the total number of women is only a fraction of the overall total. During the most recent Women’s History Month in March, I pointed this out to the appropriate person in charge of compiling these statistics, and this person responded by calculating a few statistics for my geographical region. However, although it would have been just as simple (the total numbers of women employed in the agency had already been compiled), this person declined to finish the calculations for the agency as a whole and did not circulate these results. While this example focuses on women in the workforce, it seems that for racial minorities, the landscape is little better.

In light of the recent controversy surrounding LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, I have to wonder if, when it comes to views on diversity, we still have a very long way to go. Granted, my experiences are anecdotal, but they beg the question: We all talk the talk, but does your agency walk the walk when it comes to diversity? Has equality permeated the higher pay grades in your agency/organization?

Erica Bakota is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

There was a period when I regularly attended various sorts of diversity/equity-related talks and workshops. In the end, I found them increasingly frustrating. In large part, they frustrated because they were primarily about waving the flag for diversity and equity as a cause, and often provided little in the way of demonstrated strategies for achieving the objective. I didn’t question the motives and good intentions of the organization or sponsors, but I know diversity is the right thing to aim for; now show me how to get there. It’s a little bit like psychoanalysis: “insight” is all well and good, but people don’t change on the basis of insight – they change when they have new habits to replace old. The insight is simply a basis for accepting that the new habits ought to be acquired. What we lack in achieving diverse workplaces is often the “habits”.

As for statistics, I have to question whether they are even accurate sometimes. In some work that I’ve conducted and been involved in, members of visible minorities may decline to self-declare their minority status when applying for jobs, anywhere between 20-45% of the time. In most instances, it would appear to be because under-represented groups believe fiercely in the merit principle, and want to both feel, and be viewed, as having been hired for their competence. This both compromises the quality of the HR data, and also compromises the development of identifiably useful strategies for increasing diversity.

Take the case of employment tests. We have a mountain of research examining the degrees of adverse impact that various employment tests might have against identifiable groups. We can engage in all manner of item analysis on such tests to see what sort of bias they might have, but fundamentally we rely on the test-taker’s motivation and willingness to self-ID when taking these tests, such that every test-taker gets placed into the right “pile”, and the test results can be examined to see if there is anything that systematically disadvantages a designated group. Depending on how much high or low performers from that group decide to not self-ID, and “hide out” in the larger reference group, that test may have more, or perhaps less, adverse impact than we imagine. It may have the same degree of adverse impact, but the relationship between the quirks of specific items and overall test score may be eroded. In the absence of accurate sorting of test-takers into over-represented and under-represented groups, we may be at a significant loss when it comes to removing any previously unseen barriers to increasing diversity. And it’s not for lack of will or desire to walk the talk.

So, for starters, figuring out strategies to get everybody who could self-ID as minority of one kind or another to actually do so at different junctures in the staffing process, is a perfect example of the sorts of “habits” that can move organizations closer to the goal of diversity. Walking the walk consists of lots of steps, and each step is a habit to be acquired.

David B. Grinberg

Excellent post Erica!

You really hit the nail on the head. Some agencies do walk-the-walk, others not so much. However, when it comes to diversity in gov, folks should be aware that the federal sector simply blows away the private sector in terms of representation overall as well as at white collar and management positions.

Nevertheless, as you mention, there are still areas which need to be addressed. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • More women and minorities at the SES level and upper grade levels (GS-14/15).
  • More Hispanic/Latino feds to keep pace with their representation in the civilian labor force.
  • More people with disabilities and “targeted disabilties” (the most severe impairments) at all levels.
  • More Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, in addition to Native Americans, at all levels.

Please note that the U.S. EEOC does meticulously track federal workforce data. Check out federal sector EEOC reports HERE. Also, the EEOC holds an annual national EEO training event called “EXCEL” which contains both federal sector AND private sector tracks — more on that HERE.

Folks interested in gov EEO generally should check out EEOC’s federal sector home page HERE — in additio to following EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations on Twitter @EEOC_OFO (over 10,000 followers).

I hope this information is helpful.

Mark Hammer

David, I’ve probably mentioned this before, but one of the first reports I was ever given to read when I entered the public service was a report from a presidential committee during the Clinton administration on the under-representation of Hispanic-Americans in the federal public service. And somewhere on page 8 or thereabouts was a figure that has remained with me to this day. The authors of the report noted that, at that time, some 86% of the Hispanic-American workforce lived in those states where only 34% of the federal jobs were located. The 86% figure may be a few small points off (it has been 17 years since I read the report), but the basic underlying point is still valid: when dealing with demographic groups that “cluster” in specific regions, you can find yourself in a position where the job aren’t in the same place as the people. That’s no excuse, but it IS a big hurdle, even for those of good will.

Of course, there are a number of caveats to this assertion. First there are a number of greater municipal areas that straddle multiple states (e.g., Kansas City), such that an individual a modest commute away from a potential job “counts” as being in another state. Second, in the intervening period, federal offices have moved around, and the populace itself has migrated, such that the match between where the jobs are, and where the people are, may be better now than it was in the mid-90’s…..or it may be more challenging.

At the same time, what sort of budget do federal managers have for moving appointees from where they live, to where the job is? There may be no obstacle to finding all sorts of talent and interest amongst traditionally under-represented groups, but a much bigger obstacle in getting them to where the jobs are. I won’t profess any great knowledge of your operating context, but my guess is that Native-Americans also tend to live farther from where the jobs are than many other groups. Would an unlimited moving budget address managers’ difficulties in upping the representation of Native-Americans? Maybe, and maybe not. Some folks can be very strongly tied to where they live for a lot of very important reasons, such that the jobs have to move to them, rather than the other way around. In Canada, the representation of Aboriginal peoples is not too bad, but since the majority of Aboriginal federal employees tend to be in the prairie provinces, the opportunities for career advancement there are limited, compared to the capitol and bigger cities out east.

In our own case, the seat of the federal government and public service (Ottawa) is a much more diverse place than when I was a kid here. But despite those changes and improvements, I’ve heard many a person mutter sardonically, over the years, that if the capitol was in Toronto or Vancouver, instead of Ottawa, representativeness of visible minorities in the federal workforce would not be a challenge.


Of the 89,689 federal hires in 2012:

About 70 percent of new hires last year were white, 16 percent black and 5.2 percent Latino or Hispanic and 5 percent Asian.

Rhetoric notwithstanding, diversity does not appear to be a high priority for the federal government. More minorities are graduating from college than in the past and Asians tend to outperform every other group yet the federal workforce remains overwhelming white. Corporate America has made more progress in hiring based on merit than Uncle Sam has.


Mark Hammer

H.C. makes a fair point.

But here’s the thing: it is not enough to want to attract and hire under-represented groups into your organization – they have to want the jobs you have to offer them.

When I looked at our federal survey data several years back, we had included items regarding departure intentions, and the reasons for those intentions. Departure intentions for young, educated, recently-hired, minority members were pretty high; higher than their non-minority counterparts. And chief among their reasons for intending to leave was making better use of their training and skills.

When people know they are marketable, you either have to accept that you won’t be able to attract and hold them, or else you just have to work harder to attract and hold them.

H.C. notes that Corporate America is doing fine hiring members of under-represented groups. Well, maybe there’s your problem: “corporate America” is making a more compelling offer to great hires, so that’s where they go.

I constantly remind people that, of course, one has to continue working hard to improve the representativeness of one’s public-sector workforce at all levels, and never letting that ball drop. Citizens deserve to know there is a place for them in their nation, and that those who tend to the public interest on their behalf authentically reflect their needs and concerns. But at the end of the day, the fact is that you can’t always make everyone want the jobs you have to offer, and you can’t always stop other employers from being more appealing.

Jarrod Breuer

Diversity is an issue with the federal government. However, being in an interracial relationship myself, my eyes are opening to a big issue when it comes to diversification. LOCATION!

Many large federal offices are in predominantly white geographical locations. Those include Montana, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, and South Dakota. These states not only have OVER 90% white citizens, but they also have very active white supremacist groups. Having grew up and lived in these states, my girlfriend and I don’t feel comfortable having mixed race children in these areas.

Qualified minority applicants rarely seek out vacancies in these areas. I don’t blame them.


The idea that minorities for some reason don’t want federal jobs is not very convincing given that African Americans have traditionally sought jobs in the public sector and now have an unemployment rate that is higher than the average. In addition, there are many scientific/technical jobs that need to be filled and Asian Americans outperform other groups when it comes to obtaining scientific/technical degrees.

Having alternatives in other sectors is also not a sufficient explanation for under-representation in a federal workforce that must deal with an increasingly diverse domestic population and counterparts in other countries. Minorities are no less patriotic than anyone else so this idea that they don’t “want” the jobs being offered is a red herring to justify the status quo of exclusion rather than inclusion. When token representation is the rule rather than exception, is it any wonder why people might leave agencies or be attracted to places where their identity is less of a barrier?

The government is not really interested in attracting let alone retaining qualified minority candidates as the evidence and this post demonstrates. Minorities are aware of this fact and adapt their behavior accordingly. Some speak of a ceiling being placed on how high they rise and which opportunities are available to them. Invariably, you find more minorities in support roles than in leadership ranks. Although progress has been made in the private sector in terms of diversity, the same factors are at play and its record is only marginally better than the public sector’s.


I don’t think that geography is all that important a factor. Issues of under-representation exist in regions that are more diverse and schools in states that are majority white still attract non-white students to their campuses. Furthermore, federal buildings tend to located in state capitals and urban areas are ostensibly more welcoming than rural parts of the state. More immigrants from India, Asia and Spanish-speaking countries are settling in places that have been traditionally unwelcoming of African Americans.If the legacy of past discrimination and racism has dissuaded some from relocating to such areas, it has not dissuaded more recent arrivals.

David B. Grinberg

H.C. – Despite your contentions the fact remains that the federal government maintains more diverse workforce than the private sector. Just look the representation of women and minorities in the federal workforce compared to the civilian labor force. The data don’t lie, as facts are stubborn things — as the saying goes.

Is there room for diversity improvement in the federal sector? Of course (see my prior comments below). However, to suggest that the private sector is more of a model employer than the federal sector in terms of workforce diversity is factually inaccurate and wrong.

Are you aware of Executive Order 13583: Establishing a Coordinated Government-wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce. This was signed by President Obama in Aug. 2011 and has led to a comprehensive government-wide effort led by OPM to address problem areas and improve federal workforce diversity.

Unfortunately, employment discrimination still remains an unwelcome scourge in the modern workplace. This is another reason why equal employment opportunity (EEO) and diversity/inclusion programs are of utmost importance for all workplaces — private sector and public sector alike.

The federal government knows this and has taken the lead in proactively promoting diversity programs at every agency and serving as a model for the private sector. Workforce diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity efforts all need to flourish in tandem if the USA wants to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

The federal government understands this vital principle and has taken persistent steps to ensure a diverse workforce for all individuals, regardless of race, color, gender, disability, religion, national origin, age and even genetic information.

With all due respect, to suggest otherwise is simply disingenuous and wrong.

Mark Hammer

My point is not that some minorities, such as African-Americans, don’t want federal jobs. Of course they do. My point is that when one has a job to offer, and that job has T&E requirements which right away peg the persons qualified for the job as marketable and having other choices available to them, those folks have to want your jobs, or else they’re going to go elsewhere…simply because they can.

I used to work in a unit that had a heckuva time hanging onto people. Management was great, and the work was interesting, So it wasn’t like we were driving folks away. But the sorts of folks we tended to hire had skillsets and training that made them highly marketable. So if they qualified for a promotion somewhere else, they were gone. Sometimes where they went was government, and sometimes it wasn’t.

When the zeitgeist says there is a strong business case to be made for diversity hiring, that makes qualified candidates from under-represented groups doubly marketable in EVERY sector.

And while I would agree fully that geography is not the make-or-break factor when it comes to fostering diversity, neither is good will and fair hiring practices. There are plenty of factors we rarely consider that result in differential hiring and career-advancement patterns.

Take, for example, disabilities. We may like to think of disabilities in terms of prototypic instances like folks with perceptual or motor impairments of a congenital or other lifelong form. But there are tons of folks who count as disabled that acquire disabilities over their lifespan. Those could be from physical injury, from diseases of later life, from psychiatric problems that emerge later on, from PTSD, from things that started earlier but went undiagnosed for decades. Whatever the case, the issue is that when you look at data for persons with disabilities, and compare things like hiring or promotion rates against those for persons without disabilities, you are comparing a group of people who are generally older, against a group with different age demographics. And where stats for some designated groups at the point of intake are a pretty reliable benchmark (after all, people don’t become African-American, Native-American or Hispanic-American after they get hired), you can’t approach stats on persons with disabilities in quite the same way because group membership can change.

One of the things I see in survey data is that older employees, as a group, tend not to apply for other positions quite as much. People get to a level of responsibility they are comfortable with and settle in, after a decade or so. So if you ask “Have you had a promotion in the past 3 years?” and you find out persons with disabilities have had fewer than non-disabled employees, it’s not just a result of discrimination. Age/tenure, and associated promotion-seeking behaviour, is also playing a role. You have to dig a little deeper to find out how much of that is likely a by-product of discrimination or unenlightened attitudes.

I’m not making light of disabilities. I’m saying there are other factors at work that result in the patterns we see: lack of diversity in an organization is highly multi-determined. This is why I yearn for diversity initiatives that cut through the haze and are able to say “You will need to control for this, that, and this other factor, if you want to identify what is and isn’t working, and make progress.”


What is the basis for your contention that the federal government’s record on hiring is better than the private sector’s record? Statistics are rarely cut and dry as you seem to believe. A simple head count of the number of minorities working for Uncle Sam versus Corporate America or in the nonprofit sector doesn’t paint a complete picture of the situation that minorities face. Stating that the federal government is purportedly an equal opportunity employer does not change reality and policies are only as good as the people that apply them. In my great state of Massachusetts there is a massive public sector scandal unfolding at this very moment. All of the laws governing hiring procedures in the Probation Department were flouted with regularity and impunity by legislators, judges and other public officials that wanted to secure jobs for individuals with political connections. More qualified candidates were passed over time and time again. The same happens in federal agencies and to argue otherwise is disingenuous. You can find ample evidence of the federal government professing one thing while doing another in practice. Nevertheless even if you concede the point that the federal government does a better job relative to the private sector, its record is still nothing to celebrate.


I fail to see why having options outside of the federal government would draw more minorities away from the federal workforce than non-minorities? There is large degree of self-selection at play and we are only talking about those that are inclined to enter public service in the first place.

Luis R. Alonso

Per Jarrod Breuer comment, I moved to Colorado from Seattle WA to take a job with the USDA Farm Service Agency 7 years ago, and it is in fact a lonely place when you are the only Hispanic employee in this office. Being treated different is not the only issue, it becomes a bigger issue when treated different becomes the means of harassment and hostility to the point where it couldn’t be more clear to me that (they don’t want minorities here!)

I could go on to tell you my own horrifying personal experiences in this agency, but then I would get in a lot more trouble than I already am for speaking up and defending my rights. Instead I am going to share this link which opens up the question, If the USDA FSA has had a long history of discrimination against minorities, what can a minority employee expect from this agency? I know the answer; I just don’t know WHY?


dan m ketter

I was disappointed to learn when I went to work for the State Dept that vets comprise less than 1% of their workforce even though Vet Preference is the law of the land. And yet 17% of the workforce is black and that fix quotas are used to insure that number is maintained


Why does the percentage of black federal employees disturb you? There are more white non-veterans employed by the federal government yet you are upset that blacks are working for Uncle Sam? 70% of federal employees hired in 2010 were WHITE but you aren’t disappointed by that, can’t imagine why. I’d be willing to bet that if you looked at the Pentagon, VA, DHS and other law enforcement agencies you’d see veterans overrepresented so the State Department is not indicative of anything.

Mark Hammer

I fail to see why having options outside of the federal government would draw more minorities away from the federal workforce than non-minorities?”

It’s not that more minority members than non-minority are drawn away from government by other options. Rather, by definition, there are many situations where one tends to run out of qualified minority applicants faster than majority ones…unless you happen to be recruiting in a region where what constitutes a minority nationally is a significantly large share of the local labour force.

Certainly, if the jobs being recruited for have modest min-quals, one will have a much much larger pool of applicants of every segment of the labour force, and whatever grass-is-greener attractants are out there will have negligible impact on one’s applicant pool; minority and non-minority.

But not all jobs are like that. If there is an opening for an analyst that requires a Masters in Economics or Epidemiology or some other program that is statistically intense, you’ll start out with fewer viable applicants, and the relative marketability of those applicants gives them more options, and can compromise the number of diverse applicants you end up with who want THAT job and only THAT job.

There are some kinds of recruitment, and internal staffing activity where one ought to be as troubled by under-representation as you obviously are. But there are some kinds of recruitment and internal staffing where, despite their best efforts, managers just can’t make it happen when it comes to diversity.

Luis, That’s a disturbing story you relate. “Diversity” does not begin and end with walking through the door. What happens once one is on the other side of the door matters just as much, if not more.

Much of my own thinking on diversity and opportunity was shaped by my best friend growing up. He had a severe congenital form of skin cancer that severely disfigured him (and 3 of his siblings), and grown over one eye, leaving him partially blind. When I say “disfigured”, I mean the sort where children on the street would say “Mommy, what’s wrong with that man’s face?”, and the parents would shuttle the kids away so they didn’t have to see. His face looked as if it had melted. You actually could not tell what racial group he might belong to, because the disfigurement was accompanied by discoloration.

As a graduate student he went on to win a number of significant awards, but passed away shortly before getting his doctorate. He was aiming for an academic track, and would have certainly landed interviews for positions, based on his work and accomplishments. But I imagine that the first thought, of whoever from the search committee went to the airport to pick him up, was likely “What the hell are we gonna do with this guy? I can’t stick him in front of an Intro class. They’ll walk out.”

Unfortunately there is no legal protection for ugly people, despite the discrimination they face in every walk of life, whether looking for work or just trying to get a sales clerk to help them. There is no physical accommodation required or feasible; only an attitudinal accommodation. While much of our rhetoric on diversity concerns opportunity and systems, in the end what we really want is simply full acceptance of people for what’s best in them. And when they don’t or won’t accept you, sometimes it doesn’t matter how many mechanisms and initiatives have been instituted to get you in the door.


Not buying that argument. More and more minorities and women are graduating from institutions of higher education and well-educated immigrants arrive daily in the United States. The talent pool is expanding yet the excuse is that we can’t find anyone other than white males who meet the minimum qualifications in highly technical fields? Perhaps the problem lies with the individuals and system used to determine who is “qualified?” Economics and epidemiology are not particularly demanding fields. You also have a “chicken and egg” problem as far the issue of employment goes when it comes to the perceived lack of interest on the part of minorities or women. Networking and nepotism are other factors which disadvantage minorities.