Federal employees don’t think workplace diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) initiatives go far enough to improve the employee experience—and drive mission outcomes.
No other organization has the size, reach, and mission complexity—or serves such a diverse constituency—as the US federal government. While there has been some progress over the years, underserved groups are still not well represented in federal roles, particularly when it comes to leadership positions.
The Biden administration has established a government-wide effort to ensure the workforce reflects the diversity of the American public. In line with the recent Executive Order and OPM guidance, federal agencies are taking steps to revisit hiring and employment practices, conduct assessments, and develop strategic plans. Budgetary constraints and competing priorities can make it challenging for agencies to go beyond complying with minimum requirements. However, there are significant benefits to doing so. Studies show a positive correlation between DEIA and mission outcomes like productivity and workforce satisfaction.
Federal agencies are being tasked with strengthening their DEIA commitments. But what’s happening internally?
Are agencies’ investments making a positive impact from the federal workforce’s perspective?
Eagle Hill Consulting recently surveyed more than 500 federal employees to understand how they perceive their agencies’ actions to support equal opportunity in the workplace. Our research indicates that while federal agencies recognize the importance of DEIA, they have yet to create environments where employees have what they need to embody DEIA in their actions. This could compromise mission delivery and constituent service while limiting innovation and lowering morale.
Key finding #1
Most federal employees think that their agencies consider DEIA in the workplace to be an important issue.
Nearly all (91%) of federal employees believe that their agency puts at least some importance on DEIA. What’s more, over half (Figure 1) believe that their agency puts a great deal of importance on it—and millennials and baby boomers are more likely to feel this way than Gen Xers (Figure 2). Supervisors are also more likely to share this view (57% vs. 51%).
Figure 1: More than half of federal employees believe their agency puts importance on DEIA
Figure 2: Millennials and Baby boomers are more likely to feel this way than Gen Xers
Key finding #2
Federal employees think it’s important to have conversations about DEIA at work, but far fewer of them are actually having these conversations today.
The majority (75%) of federal employees value having productive conversations about DEIA. In fact, 68% report that these conversations are encouraged, and 65% are comfortable talking about DEIA at work. What’s surprising in light of this is that only 54% of employees report having such productive conversations. Supervisors are more likely to have these talks (64% vs. 42%), which raises a potential disconnect between how each group perceives these conversations. Millennials (84%) are the most likely age group to see the importance of talking about DEIA at work and the most likely to do so (65%).
Conversations about DEIA are more important to women in the federal workforce than they are to men (79% vs. 71%), yet women have less of them than their male peers do (48% to 59%).
Key finding #3
Federal employees don’t believe that they are doing enough to demonstrate the importance of DEIA at work as individuals and see a gap between agencies’ intentions and actions, especially at supervisory and team levels.
While 57% of federal employees think that agency leaders are demonstrating the importance of DEIA through their everyday actions, just 46% think that they (themselves) are doing the same. Just 44% report that their supervisor clearly demonstrates the importance of DEIA in this way. They also see less action across human resources representatives (31%), the teams they participate in (35%), and among their colleagues (35%).
The bottom line
DEIA is more important than ever to federal agencies, and they must look further than demographic representation and adverse impact. DEIA is essential to more effectively serving constituencies, finding more effective ways of delivering services with limited resources, and driving employee engagement. And coupled with the employee turnover tsunami, DEIA is quickly becoming a key criterion for employment. While the merit of doing this is clear—and federal agencies want to make it happen—change is difficult.
How can federal agencies make progress on DEIA in a quantifiable way—and address employees’ needs?
Create a common understanding and shared language. Agencies and federal employees do not have a shared language around DEIA. For example, many younger employees may see DEIA through a social justice lens, while federal employers are looking squarely through a compliance lens. This creates tension where employees don’t believe leaders are demonstrating DEIA behaviors, while leaders think they are if they comply. To avoid this disconnect, federal agencies need to communicate how DEIA is defined in the federal environment. This mutual understanding creates a shared vocabulary and a touchstone to ground key actions and thread DEIA through the employee experience.
Closely connect DEIA to mission outcomes. In the private sector, companies are prioritizing DEIA because it is the right thing to do for people and because it is the right thing to do for the business. While federal agencies are not answering to shareholders per se, they do answer to the American people. The stronger they are in their commitment to fair and equitable workplaces, the better positioned they are to deliver the mission. This is because DEIA creates an environment where diversity of experience and thought flourish, which leads to better ways of doing things, more effective customer and constituent service, and better outcomes.
Empower leaders and managers to live up to DEIA values. Federal agencies should challenge leaders and managers to step up as change agents and demonstrate their dedication to creating a culture of DEIA. To do this, agencies should clarify what role these groups have in owning DEIA, provide them with tools and examples of how to model the right behaviors, empower managers to act locally, and tie metrics to year-end processes. It’s key that these leaders and managers visibly engage in DEIA initiatives and communicate the actions they are taking (and the expected timeline for impact). Leaders and managers also should be vulnerable, engage in dialogues, and admit that they don’t have all the answers. Finally, reverse mentorships—in which younger employees coach managers and leaders—can go a long way in driving improvements across the agency.
Reinvent federal recruitment practices. Traditional recruitment practices limit agencies’ ability to reach a more diverse talent pool. Processes are very complex and time-consuming, which means that, in many instances, by the time agencies are poised to make an offer to top candidates, those candidates have already accepted other offers. In addition to streamlining lengthy hiring timelines, agencies need to think creatively about reaching broader talent markets to seed a more diverse talent pipeline. As part of rethinking the pipeline, agencies should take a hard look at how they are developing future leaders, recognizing that recruiting for entry-level diversity today is an exercise in recruiting future leaders. Finally, high-performing organizations should leverage DEIA in their recruitment, using it as a differentiator for highly sought candidates considering many different options.
Focus on systemic changes to mitigate unconscious bias. DEIA is an ongoing journey, and changing behaviors requires an assessment of an agency’s infrastructure to uncover any unconscious biases. While this starts with analyzing policies and procedures, implicit biases ingrained in an agency’s culture must also be addressed. Imagine that an agency’s performance management practices suggest that it evaluates everyone equally. Yet the same types of people get access to leaders and are promoted faster. Providing unconscious bias training is a good first step here. A second important step is reviewing performance management, advancement, tenure, and separation data or any red flags that should be addressed.
Government of the people, by the people, for the people
Today’s federal government is prioritizing a workforce that is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” While there is much work to be done, a comprehensive DEIA strategy is nonnegotiable.
As federal agencies develop their strategies and approaches, it is key to do so with employees, not to them. It’s essential to listen to employee experiences, ideas, and needs and empower them to shape DEIA activities. One way is to use design techniques that solicit diverse employee voices and views through surveys, interviews, and “live” listening sessions. As DEIA initiatives are implemented, agencies can continue using these techniques to gather feedback. Because when agencies ground DEIA initiatives in culture and employee experience—not just checking compliance boxes—they set the pace for meaningful change.
The 2020 Eagle Hill Consulting Federal Employee Experience Survey was conducted online by Greenwald Research in December 2020. The online survey included 509 respondents from federal employees across the United States.