On Aug. 18 President Obama issued an executive order establishing a “… coordinated government-wide initiative to promote diversity and inclusion in the federal workforce.”
The order reaches civilians and military personnel working in a wide array of agencies, departments, locations and operating environments. This order is not a typical compliance initiative, though adherence to the law is vital and non-negotiable.
It is not a call for new legal rules and more processes. We have plenty of both. In fact, the order calls for a consolidation and coordination of efforts rather than the creation of new structures and regulations recognizing that “less” can prove better than more.
The most important segment speaks of creating a culture that encourages collaboration, flexibility and fairness to enable individuals to participate to their full potential. That’s what will enhance the government’s ability to “… recruit, hire, promote, and retain a more diverse workforce …,” an envisioned outcome. Diversity, inclusion and equal opportunity can’t just be tied to reducing charges of discrimination or targeting for hiring, promotion and like measuring.
Looking at the order this way won’t affect culture; instead it leads down a well-trodden and wrong-way road.
Here are some suggestions to help realize the order’s vision “… to promote the federal workplace as a model of equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion …” in an era of crimped and likely diminishing resources. As a first step, there needs to be a simple, specific behavioral definition of what diversity and inclusion mean in daily work life and how they intersect in daily actions.
Otherwise these words will be no more than well-intentioned aspirations subject to conflicting interpretations. Many initiatives in the public and private sectors have failed at this starting point.
Here’s a clue for the cultural issues that need to be addressed first. As I’ve previously written, there has been a significant rise in charges of discrimination in the federal workplace. Yet, after thorough analysis, the majority of charges are dismissed with only about 3 percent being found to have merit and about a third are settled.
From reviewing the data and speaking with highly skilled professionals in the federal government charged with investigating and reviewing these findings, many charges arise out of daily workplace interactions dealing with what’s said, what’s not said, who’s included in meetings, how questions are welcomed and answered and similar routine exchanges.
Such conduct can involve from face to face, email and like exchanges. Often what stalls diversity and inclusion efforts are not illegal or overt behaviors that show up as violations in investigative findings but conduct which makes people uncomfortable, excluding them from what should be shared daily, routine experiences.
These are the practices that need to be identified and behaviorally changed. They can affect anyone, irrespective of ethnicity, age, gender or any other category. Identifying and addressing them is what will make the order’s results effective.
The good news is that building an inclusive, high-performing culture need not be an expensive process. But it must be built on sustained actions. In Washington, D.C., as an example, many federal employees use “slugging” to get back and forth to work every day.
Drivers pull up to “slugging” lines pick up federal passengers and take them to work. During the past 35 years an informal code and culture have developed to support this practice. Why has this system arisen and lasted with no expense and for so long? Because the culture allows drivers to get to work quickly, save gas using HOV lanes which require two or more passengers per vehicle.
Riders get free transportation. Everyone benefits. And the rules are so simple they’ve become part of “oral tradition” passed on from new rider to new driver.
Culture change also requires leadership initiative and support. As to commitment, this must be seen as the personal responsibility of top leaders not as a task they can delegate to others and then ignore.
What leaders say in meetings, written communications and routine interactions will help determine whether this is successful. Talk is cheap; in today’s climate, this is good, provided leaders back up their talk with consistent behaviors and a willingness to act when others don’t follow standards.
Overall they must communicate that their goal is to prevent problems and correct them as soon as they arise to benefit mission effectiveness and meet the talent objectives stated in the order.
Here’s a checklist summary to consider in implementing plans and action steps in line with the president’s order:
• Identify specific behaviors linked to diversity and inclusion which apply to routine daily interactions.
• Present communication and learning related to these behaviors in a way that matters to everyone personally just as the slugging rules matter to drivers and passengers. If they are seen as “benefiting someone else” resulting initiatives won’t have significant impact.
• Limit behavioral principles to 5 key points—more won’t change culture and will signal a regulatory rather than cultural approach.
• Make certain leaders reinforce these principles as “their own” as shown by their conduct: what they say, how they communicate, and what they do when problems arise.
• Plan for key points to be communicated via ongoing messages and base-line learning to be reinforced outside of the classroom or online line learning environment.
• Put behavioral models in place which not only define conduct standards but give leaders tools to: model desired actions; communicate their importance in terms tied to mission and team effectiveness; intervene sooner rather than later; a process for encouraging individuals to ask questions and raise concerns and a roadmap for responding properly when they do.
Applying these rules will help build a professional, inclusive and diverse workplace in line with the vision of this executive order. Think of it as a system to smooth interactions at work in the same way that the slugging culture does for thousands daily on the way to their jobs.