3 Ways Federal Agency Leaders Can Rise to President Biden’s DEIA Challenge

As U.S. federal agencies respond to a sweeping executive order on workplace diversity, real-time data and a broader definition of workplace inclusion will be critical to establishing sustained equity.

A year ago, President Joe Biden put federal agencies’ diversity practices on notice. The federal workforce still faces “enduring legacies of employment discrimination, systemic racism, and gender inequality,” the White House said, acknowledging a problem that research has long highlighted. 

Often, slow progress on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) talent initiatives can be traced back to a so-called “leaky-bucket syndrome,” says Michelle Oltmans, federal solutions strategist at Workday. “Diverse hires join an organization but leave soon after, due to feelings of isolation and lack of development opportunities.”

In 2020, for example, a Government Accountability Office study of the U.S. Agency for International Development found that “racial or ethnic minorities” were as much as 41% less likely to be promoted than their white counterparts with similar jobs or years of service.

To remedy this, Biden issued a sweeping executive order that calls on the federal government to become a model for DEIA by improving its ability to attract, develop, and retain talent that “looks like America.”

It’s a tall order. In the decade since the federal government’s last DEIA plan, the U.S. has faced a reckoning on inequity that has prompted many employers in both the public and private sectors to prioritize DEIA improvement. Still, advancement has fallen short of expectations.

The path to parity is especially complex for the federal government, a mammoth entity that employs more than 4 million people. Yet the government’s scale is also an asset because even small improvements can mean significant, widespread impact.

“As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government must be a model for diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, where all employees are treated with dignity and respect,” says Dr. Gina Guillaume-Joseph, CTO of government at Workday.  

And as federal agencies move closer to truly reflecting the America they represent, those agencies are better poised to attract the fresh talent that’s so desperately needed, as many older employees are set to retire.

To retain that talent and help effect real change, “federal agencies need to focus not only on hiring a diverse workforce but also on plugging the leaky bucket and creating a workplace where that workforce can thrive,” says Oltmans.

“To make a significant difference long term, the government and industry as a whole must be willing to take a data-driven approach to DEIA.” 

Dr. Gina Guillaume-Joseph Chief Technology Officer of Government Workday

Here are three considerations federal leaders should keep front of mind as they take on the nation’s most pressing talent imperative.

Focus on Intersectionality

President Biden’s order noted that people of color and women have historically faced job discrimination, but it didn’t stop there. Instead, it identified several other groups who have encountered unequal treatment at work, including first-generation professionals and immigrants, rural and disabled people, LGBTQ+ workers, older individuals, those who have been previously incarcerated, parents, and more.

Traditional ways of analyzing employees tend to focus on one dimension, such as gender or ethnicity. But one worker can, of course, fit many demographic groups at once (think of a Gen X Asian woman who identifies as LGBTQ+). That’s why it’s so essential for federal leaders to dig deeper than high-level snapshots and look at intersectionality, or the ways in which different facets of an employee’s identity intersect to shape their experience. 

Consider, for example, a workplace survey to assess employees’ sense of belonging. At the “all-employee” level, the data might show 80% of employees feel a sense of belonging, which looks very positive. The picture shifts, however, when the data is parsed more finely, revealing stark differences in how various employee groups feel at work. White men, for instance, might report a high sense of belonging while every other intersection lags. 

Paying particular attention to intersectionality—say, Asian men and women from underrepresented communities—would allow leaders to surface insights that can then fuel tailored action plans and initiatives. 

Those actionable insights (and even the need for action) might be muffled if someone were looking only at blanket stats about the workforce as a whole. But using intersectionality to analyze the employee experience shines a targeted spotlight on the opportunity for improvement, so an agency can take steps to more effectively help employees feel that they belong.

DEIA progress, in other words, relies not just on collecting data but on capturing the right data. Cloud-based, real-time people analytics tools can help leaders track the many different dimensions of a worker’s identity, from gender and age to veteran status and cognitive diversity. By aligning on DEIA definitions, data sources, and security protocols, federal leaders can better understand their existing workforce and better measure their efforts to create a more diverse and inclusive culture.

Understand the Employee Life Cycle

Once agency leaders gain a richer understanding of their workers’ identities, they can use this additional context to more fully assess the employee life cycle. When all data related to diversity and inclusion is centralized, leaders can look at hiring, promotion, leadership structure, and attrition to determine blind spots and problem areas.

Agencies can quickly use real-time metrics to identify, for instance, whether certain groups are over- or underrepresented during recruiting efforts; if promotion processes are inclusive; whether diversity falls off from one management level to the next; and whether diverse talent leaves the agency at a higher rate than other employees.

By combining a holistic understanding of their employees’ identities with a broad understanding of the drivers that affect engagement, promotion, and retention, agency leaders can better identify and prioritize the issues that need to be addressed.

Establish Accountability Measures

Armed with deeper insights into underlying factors that contribute to DEIA shortfalls, federal leaders can more effectively and strategically work with their teams to better define DEIA success.

Sustained, impactful change means more than getting talent in the door, and the measures that an agency tracks should likewise go far beyond simple hires. Does our workplace culture actively promote a sense of belonging? Is career mobility equitable across demographic groups? Are diverse candidates dropping out during our recruitment process? How does employee attrition vary across groups? 

Once metrics are established and a baseline is set, leaders must create a system of accountability that moves agencies from goal-setters to goal-getters when it comes to DEIA. Specificity is imperative here: How will the agency address gaps in mobility and advancement opportunities? What plans can be implemented to build manager competency regarding inclusive leadership? How can the sense of support for all employees be increased?

Fuzzy, ill-defined DEIA goals can feel more like lip service than strategic priority. But when everyone understands current hiring, engagement, promotion, and attrition outcomes—as well as the clear steps to improve those numbers—employees are better able to take the next step to achieve their goals. In this way, real-time metrics and radical metric transparency can drive substantial change in the federal government’s human resources (HR) processes and create a more diverse workplace.

“Diverse hires join an organization but leave soon after, due to feelings of isolation and lack of development opportunities.” 

Michelle Oltmans Federal Solutions Strategist Workday

“To make a significant difference long term, the government and industry as a whole must be willing to take a data-driven approach to DEIA,” said Guillaume-Joseph. “And treat it the way we treat any other business problem: gather data, establish metrics to set baselines and measure progress, and keep trying strategies until we meet our goals.”

Moving Toward a More Equitable Future

Research overwhelmingly connects greater diversity and equitable practices to stronger performance and innovation. But for federal agencies, the call to improve DEIA efforts is based in something far greater than business outcomes. Mission-oriented and built both to serve and to reflect the nation—in its entirety—these agencies face a moral imperative as well. 

As Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, at last year’s ceremony announcing Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley as the State Department’s first-ever Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer: “We’ve got our work cut out for us. The State Department simply isn’t as diverse and inclusive as it needs to be . . . We’ve got to grapple with the problem of unequal representation—and its root causes—out in the open. We can’t sweep it under a rug and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Progress won’t happen overnight. But with the right tools, strategies, and accountability measures, federal leaders can turn intention into lasting improvements. And that’s a win, both for federal employees and the constituents they serve.

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