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Lessons and Examples in Building DEIB-Rich Workplaces

As the former Director of USOPM, Katherine observed the commitment and dedication of public employees. She believes that employees are the strong pillars of a government agency or office, and valuing their role means success for both employer and employee.

When I was an executive in a major law firm, assigned to assist in changing the understandings its partners and associates had about inclusive practices, I was astonished to find the pervasive unconscious bias that existed among well educated, well-intentioned lawyers. In government service, where I served as an advisor to elected officials, I, often the only person of color at a senior level, was given primary responsibility for making sure that their administrations looked like the people they served. And when finally, as the Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management — which serves as the chief human resource agency and personnel policy manager for the federal government, overseeing diversity, equity, and inclusion practices — I confirmed that Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) is not a one-woman-of-color job.

I remember one young woman of color who came to me, with tears in her eyes, about the humiliation she had experienced when her supervisor ignored her opinion in favor of the exact same opinion presented by her male colleague — in front of a roomful of influential individuals. She had prepared for the meeting, scripting her insights to make sure she could make her points clearly and succinctly — all to have them ignored and, then, later commended when they were spoken by a white male colleague.

I also recall walking into a conference room filled with community leaders, only to find myself directed to the back of the room because a facilitator thought that I was an onlooker when, indeed, I was the speaker.

I will generously imagine that the colleague or the facilitator had no intention of diminishing my young friend or me. The social stereotypes they held simply emerged. And I will sadly acknowledge that, yes, unconscious bias, those social stereotypes we hate to admit we all have, is thriving in all our offices, regardless of sector or industry.

Throughout my career, I served at nearly every level of local and federal government leadership and helped lead several for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Increasing the number of diverse individuals in any office is not enough. Indeed, I learned that:

  • The road to DEIB is paved with good intentions;

  • No one individual can own the work of DEIB; and

  • Unconscious bias lives alongside the impacts of discriminatory practices and policies that have been systematically embedded in institutions.

I also learned that the environment diversity creates by valuing the voices of every employee, no matter how inexperienced or soft those voices may be, is its own extraordinary reward. DEIB-rich offices don’t just happen. They are created and distinguished by core values.

  • Leadership matters. Commitment to DEIB must come from the top.

  • Intention outplays chance or luck in bringing diverse staff to offices.

  • High retention of employees is the mirror to successful practices.

  • Valuing all voices, even in the most difficult and urgent of circumstances, ensures more ideas and innovations.

  • Time and people are the most important investments.

Leadership and Intention Leads to High Retention

In the Senate offices of a well-known member, the commitment to DEIB comes from the senator herself. She tapped her chief of staff to implement her vision of a diverse staff that contributed at every level to her effectiveness as an elected leader, a Senate colleague, and a powerful representative of women on the Hill. She holds herself and her chief of staff accountable to her vision because she knows it has made her staff stronger. It’s worth noting that staff remain with her for years.

Meanwhile, in a hallway not too far away, several congressional staffers of color talked about how, in their own offices, diversity gave way to expediency in hiring. One staffer described the frustration of working with the office scheduler who had been tapped to do the hiring: “She’s so overloaded with scheduling that filling the job is one more thing on her long checklist, and no one is talking to her about the lack of diversity among the candidates she is interviewing. Not one candidate looks like me.” Not surprisingly, the staffer speaking was shopping her resume around.

Considering these two examples of office environments, where would you choose to work? The answer here is painfully obvious. The senator’s personal commitment to DEIB generates stability and loyalty among her staff. She has created an environment of value that inspires staff to work harder and better and stay longer. Openings in her offices generate many applications from other experienced staffers. Those applicants know that working for the senator means everyone has a chance to grow.

Valuing Voice

In a different Senate office, I know a former staffer who became a powerful voice on immigration. He built strong policy experience before he joined the senator’s staff, however, she asked him to move from drafting legislation to directly advising her. When hearings were held to discuss controversial immigration legislation, she insisted that he sit directly behind her to ensure she had the most knowledgeable person on her staff near her. He is Latino, the senator is not. She needed someone who could speak to her about the very issues that the Latino community was concerned about and she wanted his voice informing and educating her so that she could speak accurately, pointedly, and with strength.

His voice and expertise matter to her. He was an addition to a highly valued staff, and his hiring demonstrated to other staff the value of their diverse perspectives in making the senator’s legislative actions even more reflective of the constituents she sought to represent. She knows that staff’s knowledge and expertise — their voices — make her a stronger senator.

Investing in Time and People

Unconscious bias exists. Many congressional offices are committed to reforming their hiring practices, and these reforms will be particularly important for change to happen. And I will add one more critical element for change: looking within each office to help root out the existing unconscious bias that hovers unseen at desks and tabletops. Remember that young woman in tears? She, like many others like her, sits right next to us.

With very little effort and some redirected resources, change from being unconscious to conscious about what needs to be done can happen. Because the journey to self-awareness needs support, the most important investment that can be made is time. Make this investment first: time by leadership to personally demonstrate the commitment to and for DEIB; time for staff to talk about why and how unconscious bias exists; and time to examine and train ourselves and one another about how to prevent unconscious bias from seeping into our everyday practices.

Intentional investments toward eliminating bias from the workplace make indelible differences.

Don’t Be Afraid to Learn

Despite repeating myself, I’ll write again — unconscious bias exists — in you, in me, and in those we work for and work with. There is not a good/bad binary here. Eliminating bias is a journey that all of us must be willing to take, knowing that some of the paths will be rocky. Every morning I wake up knowing I have to beat back the racist views that history, society, and culture have written. Every morning I have to invest my time and my commitment to learning how to be better at being a non-racist. Whatever it takes to make that happen is what I must spend.

I am guided by César Chávez in many ways, but these words ring particularly powerful to me when I seek clarity on how to stretch beyond my place of comfort and privilege:

“Preservation of one's own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.”

DEIB is about enriching our workplaces by valuing and supporting the role of people of all races, ethnicities, abilities, and sexual orientation. It is more than believing in those values — it is about actualizing them in whatever offices you sit in — government, non-profit or corporate. And, as I have learned, it is more than one woman of color can do by herself.

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