State Department preparing to elevate diversity ‘to the next level’

For an agency with offices flung from Antigua to Zanzibar, and a mission to foster diplomacy among global cultures and communities that run the gamut, the State Department workforce demographics leave something to be desired: diversity.

Secretary Rex Tillerson has taken notice, and the department is taking action.

“The secretary said it best; I think one of the things that’s important to appreciate is the value of diversity,” said May Baptista, senior advisor for diversity, inclusion and outreach at the Office of the Director General, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “It’s not just to achieve the mix of population that looks like the rest of our country, he said that based on experiences, the value of diversity in the workforce enriches our work and enriches our work products to have individuals from different cultural perspectives. There’s also a strong business case that diversity helps any organization, but given that an essential element of diplomacy is reaching across cultures, diversity is particularly important to us in the State Department.”

During a mid-August address to fellowship and student programs participants at State, Tillerson called for a bridging of “the great diversity gap” in the department, saying the country needs a State Department “that reflects the American people, reflects who we are.”

According to a State Department spokesperson, as of December 2016, State has 75,420 total employees, which includes full-time permanent direct hire foreign service, civil service personnel and all locally employed staff.

The most recent data on State’s website show that as of the end of fiscal 2017 about 71 percent of  State employees were white, compared to 15 percent African American, 6 percent Asian and 4.5 percent multi-race.

Hector Sanchez, chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda and co-chairman of the Hispanic Council of Federal Employment, said this isn’t a new issue for agencies.

“Historically we have always had a gap when it comes to diversity in the federal government,” Sanchez said. “On the one hand we have structural challenges that make it harder for minorities or some minorities to be part of the competitive process or inclusion in the federal government. We have seen serious levels of nepotism in many of the agencies, so it’s not hiring the best and the brightest, a lot of those jobs go to friends. And we haven’t had in most cases real leadership when it comes to having a diverse federal workforce. Leadership is really important when it comes to having a diverse workforce.”

That need for leadership is why Baptista said she was excited to hear the secretary’s comments on his commitment to elevating diversity efforts.

“We’ve had some significant successes and we recognize the need to elevate it to the next level,” Baptista said. “We are having some internal conversations on how to take the secretary’s vision and translate them into policies and outreach tactics that achieve his goals.”

Tillerson’s vision includes “[redoubling] efforts to increase diversity at the highest ranks of the department, including at the ambassador level,” according to his remarks.

Tillerson said he’s directing hiring committees to ensure the inclusion of at least one minority candidate for any open ambassador positions.

“Now they may not be ready, but we will know where the talent pool is,” Tillerson said. “A big part of developing our minority leadership is identifying qualified individuals 5 and 10 years before they are ready to become senior leaders and managing and developing their careers, as we do others, so that they’re undergoing preparations for those senior roles over time.”

That also means tapping new talent pools. The best candidates won’t just be found at Ivy League schools, Tillerson said, but in small towns and suburbs, as well as reaching out to veterans.

“So we’re going to build our recruiting team operations out in places that we haven’t concentrated before,” Tillerson said. “Now, that doesn’t mean coming through town once a year and dropping some pamphlets off at the recruiting office. We’re going to build and develop relationships with institutions around the country so that people can more easily find us, and more importantly, we can find them, not just to rely upon people seeking us out.”

Baptista said State already has a diversity infrastructure throughout the United States, including  professional recruiters, each of whom have an area of specialization and and specific goals related to diversity.

State also has 16 diplomats-in-residence hosted at universities across the country.

“We also have well-established, effective diversity recruitment programs such as the Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship Foreign Service Scholarship, and the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Fellowship Program,” Baptista said. “These highly competitive programs target under-represented minorities, women and those with financial need who have contributed to a more diverse foreign service.”

A new fellowship also focuses on IT specialist diversity, and offers graduate school funding in exchange for a 5-year commitment, Baptista said. And State also celebrated its one-year anniversary of centralizing all aspects of its disability programs into one office and establish a senior executive service position to oversee it, she said. It’s the first cabinet-level department to do so.

“In addition to the programs that we have now, we’re following a lot of the demographic trends, we’re working on the recruitment,” Baptista said. “In addition to that, we are working on retention and encouraging innovation and the ability to solve problems.”

Baptista said internally State is working with its 13 employee affinity groups and reaching out to external employee resource groups to talk best practices.

“We conduct studies to determine our recruitment efforts, we also lean very heavily on our recruiters and our 16 diplomats in residence,” Baptista said. “We also look at metrics on the software we produce that looks at where our recruitment efforts are currently operating and where we would need to expand.”

Trying to do better

It’s too early to tell whether State’s new efforts will be successful, but Sanchez and fellow minority advocacy groups will be watching.

Only 7 percent of State employees are Hispanic, and that percentage drops to 4 percent within the SES.

“We’re talking about who’s sitting at the tables at the highest levels, which are the SES,” Sanchez said. “Only 4.4 percent of those are Latino. That’s a very serious problem.”

Sanchez pointed to the Social Security Administration’s 15 percent Latino workforce as an example of an agency that’s not perfect, but one that better reflects the people it is assisting.

“That could be an agency that would be really interesting to see what are the best practices,” Sanchez said. “I think it’s directly correlated to the fact that they have to provide direct services to our communities. They need people that speak their language, so it’s a direct element of need, and just making the hires that make sense for that agency.”

Sanchez said that’s why the council will continue to urge President Donald Trump to make the hiring and advancement of Latino employees a priority, like the executive order signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000.

“When we’re talking about Latinos in the federal government, yes, we’re talking about some jobs that are middle class jobs, and are very very good jobs,” Sanchez said. “But we’re also talking about implementation of policies that affect the quality of life for families, so that’s why having fair representation is so important for us . We’re going to continue putting pressure on all the administrations to have more diversity in the federal government.”

Tonya Saunders, spokeswoman for Federally Employed Women (FEW), agreed that improving diversity starts at the top, and while it’s important to work toward improving diversity, the federal government has been doing a good job.

“We really are diverse,” Saunders said. “Now are there areas within certain agencies that could do better in terms of hiring? Absolutely. In terms of promoting? Most definitely. I don’t look at it and neither does FEW look at it through just a vacuum of ‘we’re in this area and nothing else really matters.’ We are — just as corporations are — trying to do better in terms of making certain that everyone has equality opportunity.”

Saunders said one thing she’ll be watching is the impact of the hiring freeze and employee payouts who are taking early outs or retiring will have on diversity.

“It’s harder to attract and retain the best and brightest from all backgrounds if for example, family medical leave and observing certain pay promotions, or pay equality, those types of issues tend to have an impact on who’s even interested in coming to work at the federal government,” Saunders said. “I believe that the dialogue that we have around the opportunity is important. If we want to attract people to these positions, then we have to give them a reason for wanting to come in to work in an environment that may or may not support [equal opportunity employment]. We’re saying you have to support diversity, but not everyone is saying the same thing.”

Saunders said the House’s passage of the Federal Employee Antidiscrimination Act of 2017 — now in the Senate — is a sign that Congress “is inching in that direction” of more sensitivity to people’s rights.

“But again, I believe there needs to be a consistent dialogue around the opportunity of encouraging people to look at the federal government as a viable place to work,” Saunders said.

For Baptista, she said State has put forth a lot of effort over time, and now it’s beginning to see the results of that hard work.

“When we are able to represent the population we serve and advocate for our values, we are able to advocate our values and interests with the communities and governments we engage,” Baptista said. “But a lot of the success depends on the quality of the people we attract to advance our national security interest, and when we’re looking at long-term demographic trends, you’ll see that the American population is growing more diverse. So our people are earning post-secondary degrees and studying aboard, and once we recruit that talent, we are making a concentrated efforts to ensure that we invest in their ability to develop their potential and to advance on their merits.”