Obama Order Ignites Diversity Debate

on October 05, 2011 at 11:30 AM
President Obama’s executive order to establish a more diverse and inclusive federal workforce has sparked a debate among employees in, and out of, the public sector.

Some of the issues being addressed include:

  • What are the benefits to workplace diversity?
  • Is it a business imperative, or just something that satisfies a quota?
  • What exactly is diversity?
  • Is it just a racial and gender issue?

Do any of these questions sound familiar?

“Affirmative action” and “equal employment opportunity” are the buzz words people most often associate with workplace diversity. But to do so is incorrect, says Dianne Floyd Sutton, president of Sutton Enterprises.

“Understand that EEO are federal laws designed to combat racism and prejudice in employment practices on the basis of race, gender, age, color, national origin, disability, religion and retaliation,” said Sutton. “In the federal employment system, discrimination based on sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, political affiliation, and genetic information are prohibited employment practices under Merit System Principles.

“Affirmative Action also was created out of social concerns…[as] a program designed to overcome the present effects of past employment discrimination, Sutton explained. “The focus is on removing barriers to the employment of women, minorities and people with disabilities (usually excludes white males but not always). It applies to the government and to private sector organizations that contract with the federal government or that receive federal financial assistance.”

We don’t just have diversity in the workplace because it’s the law — we do so because it enhances the work environment, argued a human resources specialist.

“…hiring diverse individuals is the law, [but] we also do so because they bring different perspectives to work. People will bring new perspectives into the workplace as leaders embrace their suggestions. The more employees are enpowered [sic] to submit suggestions, the more effective and far reaching their suggestions will be.”

Others argued that diversity of opinion still plagues many organizations, and lauded the use of social media as a tool to combat this.

Mark Hammer, an analyst in the Canadian public sector, acknowledged the need for government agencies to embrace diversity in opinion and wondered if there were any missed opportunities.

“Certainly, openness to new and diverse perspectives and ideas is important; people won’t offer them up unless they perceive a hospitable environment. But I think at another level, there is a kind of etiquette aspect to it as well. Some managers/supervisors plan around opportunities for diverse input, and facilitate it by creating such opportunities. And others, while perhaps not opposed to it, in principle, don’t realize what they are doing to create obstacles, and don’t create as many opportunities for it to happen.”

Ultimately, Sutton reminded readers, “managing diversity in the federal sector will mean creating and maintaining an environment that naturally enables all people to contribute to their full potential in pursuit of organizational objectives.”

David Reinbold is a GovLoop Fellow and M.A. Candidate, International Media at the American University.GovLoop is the premiere online community for the public sector, connecting 50,000 Federal, state and local government employees and equipping them with resources and collaboration tools to solve society’s toughest challenges.