Lack of Diversity in the Government Workforce Can Lead to Retention and Trust Issues

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African Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented among managers and professionals, and women are underrepresented among chief administrative officers, according to a report.

As a push for racial justice has risen throughout the country, there has been a related increase in focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in the public service workforce. Lack of diversity in certain positions like management or public safety can potentially lead to a lack of trust with the community. It can also create problems with keeping diverse staff.

Those are some of the top takeaways from a report prepared by MissionSquare Research Institute. The report compares historical and current public service diversity figures to those of the broader workforce. Aspects of diversity discussed include race, ethnicity, age, gender, LGBTQIA+ identification, veteran status, cognitive diversity, religion and language. The report also includes data on diversity within public service organizations such as local government, education and health care.

The lack of diversity has led to underrepresentation for minorities, causing staff to leave due to discrimination, the report states. African Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented among managers and professionals, and women are underrepresented among chief administrative officers, such as city managers. It was also reported that almost 10% of LGBT employees left their employer due to feeling unwelcome in the work environment, causing a toxic effect on retention. 

However, the institute report shows that when employers make inclusion efforts, it is important for them to include acceptance and encouragement of staff to be their true selves—whether it be with their hairstyles, manner of dress, cultural or religious practices, or in referring to themselves by their preferred personal pronouns. Having this type of acceptance in the workplace not only creates a general sense of comfort and belonging, but also a 56% improvement in employee job performance, it states.

Doing these things also can help build trust with the public—whether in education, health care, public safety, housing and community development, or other areas. When residents see themselves reflected in the public service workforce, hear from those agencies in their languages, or feel listened to about their community concerns, there can be a more effective partnership for problem solving, and a more relationship-based pipeline to recruiting the next generation of employees, according to the report. 

“If the country practiced diversity, equity and inclusivity there would be more productivity because people see from different perspectives,” said Eugene Shelton, professor and coordinator for diversity initiatives at Kent State University. “When you put different perspectives together you create fairness and find a truth within the fairness, otherwise you are creating an unfair game of inequality.”

“I had to talk to people who did not want to talk to me, or did not see credibility in me because of the color of my skin, and I had to deal with that at every level of my life,”  Shelton added. “The color barrier is breaking, but equality and unbiasedness must be given.”

Even where a workforce seems appropriately reflective of the community’s diversity, onboarding, engagement and a focus on equity should be considered part of a government's journey toward continuous improvement rather than simply a box to be checked, the report continues. Likewise, equal opportunity on paper is an insufficient guarantee that the impacts on diverse groups within the workforce will remain equitable. 

The institute devised a list of next steps to consider, including:

  • Designating a diversity, equity and inclusion officer. If an organization doesn’t have the resources to designate this role to one person, the report suggests adding it onto an existing employee’s responsibilities.
  • Evaluating the diversity of staffing and areas where there’s room for improvement.
  • Thinking creatively about recruitment. Even if the local labor market may not include a wide range of diverse candidates, consider internships, hackathons, virtual project teams and other strategies that can help build relationships across a wider region, raise awareness of career opportunities, and emphasize the value and satisfaction of working in public service.
  • Establishing a regular engagement process for gathering employee input to assess not just overall satisfaction, but also issues around discrimination, equity and inclusion.

This story has been updated to include additional comments.

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