Marie-Joëlle C. Khouzam, Bricker & Eckler LLP
Public officials are in many ways a microcosm of the community that employs or elects them. People drawn to public service typically value fairness, collaboration, and other qualities that are cornerstones to helping communities grow and thrive. At times, though, the tension between the desire to remain the same charming place versus one that allows itself to be reimagined can result in communities being seen as less progressive and possibly less welcoming. This can be a dilemma for communities working to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) part of their core values.
While DEI is most often discussed through the lens of hiring and human resources, it can go well beyond that in the public sector. We have all overheard neighbors and residents lament “the good old days”, seen visitors at public meetings fight tooth and nail over code or zoning changes, oppose a development that they view as changing the character of a neighborhood, or even balk at efforts to replace a blighted site with a commercial project that could mean jobs and income tax. Perhaps the new proposal included affordable-housing or senior living components, or proposed to develop multi-family right next to a single-family subdivision. All these possibilities, as well as how public officials react to them, can affect our DEI efforts at creating more inclusive communities.
Why is DEI so important? An article in Harvard Business Review noted that the coaching service BetterUp surveyed thousands of employees who reported that the benefits to organizations when workers feel accepted and included result in 56% better performance, 50% fewer resignations, and 75% fewer sick days.1 And of course, when a workforce reflects its community, it is better able to understand and respond to the life experiences and problems of its citizens and how to authentically engage with them to deliver services.
It all starts at the top, and organizations are considering how to layer DEI into all aspects, from hiring, to leadership training, to outward-facing customer service, and everything in between. Last June, President Biden issued an executive order directing federal agency heads to comprehensively review their practices and identify improvements that would create opportunities for underrepresented persons. If a town is committed to including DEI among public hallmarks like stewardship and trust, its leadership – elected and appointed – must be clear in what that means and then model the desired behavior. This starts with placing a premium on respect and understanding.
Here are a few suggestions that may jump-start your DEI efforts and get you out of that “we’ve always done it this way” mindset:
Recruiting talent: Often, we default to hiring people we or our co-workers know. This may prove useful, but statistically, it likely means we are hiring people who look or think like us, or have similar backgrounds or skills. If your recruiting talents are not generating a diverse pool of applicants and, therefore, diverse thinking, consider alternative ways or places to reach potential applicants. Participating in job fairs and veteran outreach organizations, posting in newspapers with minority readerships, recruiting at historically black colleges and universities, and creating talent pipelines that start with internships or trade apprenticeships are just a few ways to do this. According to Mission Square Research Institute’s September 2021 report, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Public Service Workforce, “…Recruitment efforts include direct outreach to colleges (27% of survey respondents), targeted neighborhoods and demographics (17%), and veterans and military family members (13%). With attitudes about public service starting early in life, governments are also helping to develop civic curricula or other partnerships with K- 12 schools (4%)…. Rather than simply relying on a single jobs board, employers recognize that diverse audiences are best reached by a mix of platforms, associations, or media most appropriate to their varying education, industry, technological proficiency, geography, primary language, or demographics. This requires efforts that increase connections with candidates that typically would not have considered a position in public service.”
- Background checks: Consider also the efforts of many public agencies to offer second chances by removing barriers such as an applicant’s criminal history. While a criminal background check may be mandatory for certain positions, EEOC guidance provides that the relevance and age of past convictions should be considered relative to the position you are filling.2 Many public agencies are also subject to “ban-the-box” laws that restrict asking about criminal backgrounds prior to the interview or offer stage.
- Interviews: Have you reviewed your interviewing practices and questionnaires to equitably compare applicants based on qualifications and merit, rather than just “personality fit”? Tools like behavioral-based interview questions tend to better elicit responses based on actual work experience.
- Retaining talent: Retaining talent is often the harder piece of the HR puzzle. Making new hires feel welcomed as valued contributors may necessitate revisiting your orientation, onboarding, and training processes, incorporating inclusion into aspects of decision-making, teaching leadership, and finding new ways to engage employees. In addition to recognizing talent, building a sense of belonging, and offering educational opportunities, many employers now use “stay” interviews to gauge employees’ satisfaction, long before an employee informs them in an exit interview that they have sought an opportunity elsewhere.
- Inclusive logistics: Does your workplace have a dedicated mothers’ room for lactation breaks? Is accommodation made for non-Christian employees whose beliefs require daily prayer? Is your town able to accommodate an employee who can no longer walk up a flight of stairs to reach her office? Can residents who are otherwise-abled receive the same level of customer service when seeking help? Are restrooms fitted and signed in an inclusive way? Considering situations through another person’s lens will help inform improvements in workplace procedures and delivery of services.
- Personnel changes: Many public entities are limited by law in how layoffs are conducted, but other personnel changes such as promotions, separations, and the like. Regardless, the law requires that employment decisions are not made on the basis of of age, gender, race, disability, and other protected factors.
- Training: When leaders modeling good behavior is not enough, train, train, and then train some more. Hiring trainers or looking for online training programs geared to police and other groups of public employees, especially ones that ask employees to get outside their comfort zones to understand that we all carry some level of implicit bias, is an important investment in community relations.
Communications: We sometimes become jaded to how words can impact the public’s perception. It may be helpful to periodically review communications with a peer to gauge how they are perceived by non-employees, or whether they will be understood to someone whose first language may not be English. Thinking about specific departments, are there words that may be perceived as offensive or biased? Can a simple word swap alleviate this? Here are some examples:
“illegal alien”, “illegal immigrant” “prostitute”
“Councilmember” “uncharged”/”unindicted persons” “marches”, “rallies”.
“person with mental health needs” “substance abuser” “undocumented person”
- Public or youth engagement opportunities: Would your public body consider a mentoring program where each elected works with a young person in the community who is curious about or interested in the public sector? This is also an opportunity to encourage underrepresented high school and college youths to learn about the role of government, and to potentially create a talent pipeline. What about ways that your community can welcome New Americans? Are there social-service agencies that you can partner with to advance this goal?
- Procurement/Purchasing: Where competitive bidding is not required, how can your agency diversify its pool of vendors for goods and services? Does your community have organizations focused on providing new opportunities to underrepresented merchants or service providers? Many workshops for persons with intellectual disabilities partner with local organizations to train persons to scan documents and perform other services that benefit public entities. Many entities use space on ads or bid packets, to let underrepresented businesses know they are encouraged to apply/submit.
- Legal: Have you reviewed contracts to ensure they limit the use of gender-specific pronouns and include non-discrimination provisions?
- Parks & Recreation: Has your P&R department factored mobility issues, the needs of persons with sensory issues, and inter-generational options in its programming opportunities? Can the community partner with transportation agencies to make programs more accessible? Is signage universally understandable through words, images, or size of fonts?This is just the tip of the DEI journey. Hopefully these ideas will jump-start or invigorate your agency’s efforts to continue its welcoming strides toward progress.Marie-Joëlle Khouzam, a partner with Bricker & Eckler, has represented employers and public entities for over 30 years. In addition to advice and counsel work and defending clients in dispute matters, she also conducts frequent in-house training on DEI, harassment, and other workplace topics of interest.