Diversity: The Vision vs. The Tactics

For the hiring official- will it be a pellet or a shock?

Mike is always asking about the big picture. So I developed my own vision, before looking at the “official” ones. I’d like to hear what you think about it. Because I suspect we agree on the vision, but not the tactics.

My Vision:

What are we looking for in diversity?

I guess what I am looking for are experiences of a Forest Service that looks like America. If I go to a campground or a public meeting, or a meeting of Research executives, there should be faces that look like the variety of ethnic groups and genders, that live in the country. Within the agency, the culture should be welcoming of all kinds of diversity- in sexual orientation, religion or not-religion, food preferences. You might hear as much about the latest play in town in casual conversation, as say, football or elk-hunting.(OK, well that’s a bit over the top, perhaps). People would not make judgments about people based on their previous chairs (e.g., if you never worked on a ranger district you can never really understand the Forest Service). People would be very careful when determining that someone just “doesn’t fit” in a job, that the person doesn’t actually have a point of view that is different and important to hear. So my views are right-brain and holistic and difficult to understand and achieve numerically.

Here is what the OPM Director thinks:

When we draw on the wisdom of a workforce that reflects the population we serve, we are better able to understand and meet the needs of our customers-the American people. Government-wide, we have made important progress toward hiring a workforce that truly reflects America’s diversity, and we will continue to pursue that goal. But merely hiring a diverse workforce is not enough.
We must make our workplaces more inclusive as well.
America was founded on the ideal that from many, we are one, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That is the rationale for inclusion. To gain the maximum benefit from our increasingly diverse workforce, we must make every employee feel welcome and motivated to work their hardest and rise through the ranks. We must affirm that we work better together because of our differences, not despite them.

And diversity and inclusion from this document (with the mind-numbing title of “Guidance for Agency-Specific Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plans”).

Definitions of “Diversity” and “Inclusion”
Throughout this document, we define workforce diversity as a collection of individual attributes that together help agencies pursue organizational objectives efficiently and effectively. These include, but are not limited to, characteristics such as national origin, language, race, color, disability, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, veteran status, and family structures. The concept also encompasses differences among people concerning where they are from and where they have lived and their differences of thought and life experiences.1
We define inclusion as a culture that connects each employee to the organization; encourages collaboration, flexibility, and fairness; and leverages diversity throughout the organization so that all individuals are able to participate and contribute to their full potential.

It actually sounds pretty similar to my vision, doesn’t it (without the showtunes)? Like harmonies between nature and humans ( a la the NEPA statute), though, the devil seems to be either in the details or the tactics to get to the vision.

So let’s imagine that you’re a district ranger and you want to hire someone outside the FS. First of all, you can’t tell if they are in a diverse groups or not (except if they are women). There is a box, that people might check, but that part of the form doesn’t regularly get forwarded from Albuquerque (or that was the last I remember, I hope this part has been fixed). So if someone’s name is Villanueva, they could be Hispanic… or if they’re a woman, they could have had the maiden name of Mary Flanagan and married Jane Villanueva (in some states..) .. leading to a different impression of ethnicity. You could check what town they’re from, what high school they went to and make inferences.. you could see if they put belonging to the Asian American Club in their list of activities..but you really have no clue.

Now why would people not check the box? I have been told that the forms are not the easiest to figure out for anyone, including current employees. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were glitches of various kinds on the computer between them entering the check and it being produced in a report. Then some people don’t want to be thought of as a number on someone’s list of people to get. None of these possibilities help the District Ranger meet her boss’s expectations. Of course, there are numbers you are supposed to meet, but because it is not cool to talk about them, no one knows what they are (well, some people have told me that there are secret documents, but.. is this too weird or what?).

When I first understood this, it reminded me of the experiment where the rats pressed a lever and they randomly got a pellet or an electric shock. It can’t be good management.

It’s like you were assigned to breed cattle for milk production, but you weren’t allowed to see the milk production figures. I think we would all recognize that situation as pretty ridiculous, and you would turn down the job if offered.

One of the young leaders at the Retiree Rendezvous was asked why he stayed with the Forest Service- his answer was more or less that there was nowhere else to go with his degree. Let’s see, pellet, shock, can’t escape cage…(this fellow really had a positive attitude, thank heavens for young people!).

One of my associates pointed out the below ethnic delineations of OPM. Like so many variables that are essentially continuous, drawing lines at any spot can be difficult and somewhat meaningless.

Below are a couple of my “not-favorites” from USA Jobs.

Hispanic. A person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish cultures or origins. Does not include people of Portuguese culture or origin.

So if you are from Portugal, you are not-diverse. If you are from Spain you are.
If you are from Brazil, you are not-diverse. If you are from Venezuela, you are.


White, not of Hispanic origin. A person having origins in any of the original people of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East. Does not include people of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish cultures or origins (see Hispanic). Also includes people not included in other categories.

If we had other “whites” and no people who originated in the Middle East, Iraq or Iran, Morocco or Egypt, would we be “diverse? or not” It’s all very puzzling. Also, “people not included in other categories” are “white” so if you read the definition of American Indian or Alaska Native here literally:

A person having origins in any of the original people of North America, and who maintains cultural identification through community recognition or tribal affiliation. (This code must not be used for employees in Puerto Rico.)

You would think, then, that a South American with origins in the original people of South America must be “white” as they are “not included in other categories.” It’s all kind of bizarre.

And a further problem is that when you use these distinctions to give people preferential treatment, there might be a tendency to make claims that aren’t accurate, because (I hope I’m not shocking anyone here) not everyone is honest on this planet.

And even if the family history, of say, a black, Hispanic or Native American ancestor somewhere up the tree is “true”; if you did DNA tests, you might find out that somewhere along the lines the assumed grandfather is not the biological grandfather. And really if the goal is for people to “look” diverse, then even thinking about whether someone is 1/16 something or not, when they have no appearance or cultural ties, does not really meet that goal. So perhaps our incentives and our goals are not lined up.

We do have people who appear to be white, claim they are not, but we can’t actually check. Meanwhile people who appear to be in diverse groups, and have the cultural background that we might want in terms of diversity, if they don’t check the box, don’t “count.” And counting is important, in addition to the opportunities of an individual, because some poor schmuck and his boss and his boss’s boss (and so on for I guess about five levels or so) or are going to be rated or be “berated” on how they are doing.

Now, the story that I heard was that the Secretary made a serious mistake (we read about it in the paper) and is being punished for his sins until he “moves the dial”( actually I heard a related expression, but can’t remember it right now). The way this story goes, since the Department has mostly FS employees, then the FS must make drastic changes to show the Sec’s contrition.

Like I said, I don’t know if that story is correct, but colleagues at the Interior agencies have goals also, but not the intensity of the FS. Which is data which a) might support the hypothesis and b) makes me wonder whether there are actually any advantages for the FS in being the “main target” of USDA instead of “one of the crowd” in Interior.

I have gone on too long for a blog post, but I do have some ideas for how to align the vision and the incentive structure, which I will share in another post. The first idea, that we’ve already started, is to open this discussion to get others’ perspectives.

13 thoughts on “Diversity: The Vision vs. The Tactics”

  1. This whole diversity issue is on the borders of “forest planning”, but I will bite with some comments. Maybe because I sensed a bit of a challenge by your snip on my recent comment regarding women making district ranger with no previous work experience on a ranger district…in the field, in the woods, on the range, or whatever.

    This got me thinking that probably my views here are somewhat colored by my personal experience that only included R1 and R6, on forests that were really forests, where timber output was a primary objective. So my “ranger district field experience” mandate should probably be modified to this extent; on districts (maybe on some southern California forests that are largely non-forests) where recreation is the primary use, a new hire may not need field experience. So a woman landscape architect with good human relations skills meeting all other requirements could possibly be a good choice for DFR…as good as any man.

    It would seem sensible when winnowing through candidates for any job, field positions or supervisory or staff specialists, the location and type of activities at that location would be a primary focus in the selection. I suspect that even you, Sharon, would not consider someone with training in human relations as a serious candidate for a fishery biologist opening on a PNW forest. Likewise I think it is obvious a bias towards gender selection to consider a woman for a DFR position on a PNW forest where “timber is king” (or used to be), unless she knows the woods, has worked in the woods with timber operators, etc. Just doesn’t make sense. That specific type of experience should be a prerequisite in the selection. Yes, I agree that DFRs are now largely supervisors and managers, but some weight should be put on knowledge of the specific activities that your people are engaged in.

    To close, again from my rather dated and limited viewpoint, it was clear that once upon a time the USFS was promoting women into some roles where experience and skills were not evaluated on an equal level with the male candidates. It was that, clear and simple. And the long-term impact on agency morale has been significant. The mandate to diversify with more women may have been achieved, but at what price?

    • Ed, I would argue that the “mandate to diversify with more women” has not been achieved… just looking at Region 2 Forest Supervisors and Deputy Forest Supervisors, and Station Directors. Are numbers below 20% today or at 0, signs of “success”?

      So this conversation has taken an interesting turn… it seems that there are still a lot of feelings about efforts to incorporate women that occurred in the past. This could be an artifact of the people on this blog, and that current employees are not weighing in (and that’s OK, I can understand why).

      The frustrations of dealing with today’s situation with other (all) kinds of diversity was where I originally intended to go.

  2. On the Ranger District level, women “Ologists” were often pushed into compromising their scientific opinions in mean-spirited ways, by firmly entrenched male department heads. One RD I worked on in South Carolina had a new “Yankee” Ranger, from New York state. Since I was on assignment there, we kind of bonded. He didn’t say it outright but, it seemed like constant challenges to his ideas and way of doing business.

    Our marking crew isn’t very diverse. Our crew leader is a white female and the crew is four white males, all of us over 45 years old. We had two other white males on the crew but, they ended up quitting. The five of us males who were hired to do timber work were the only ones available through Avue. If the new hiring system would expand the amount of duty stations you could apply for, in applying for a generic job title, one could make a lot more candidate lists. Currently, Avue only allows consideration at nine duty stations, nationwide, for the kind of jobs that are advertised more like a roster. If you pick the wrong duty station, you’ve wasted one of your nine slots. You should be able to specify consideration to as many locations as you want.

    Imagine if there was a requirement to have at least 8 women on every Hotshot crew? Do you think they could find that many qualified women to populate every crew? Could we get black folks to move to remote Ranger Districts, deep in redneck country? Here in California, I attribute much of the anti-female attitudes to the fire and fuels folks. Back in the old days, the old guard bigwigs thought that women were novelties on fire crews, and that maybe they just don’t belong on the firelines. Women who didn’t tolerate the system were not helped to succeed. I still tend to think there are sexist undercurrents in today’s fire suppression culture. Maybe someone currently working on a fire crew could give us a hint? Certainly, there are women who can keep up with the men. Certainly, there are excellent women doing what used to be a man’s job. Some women fail at difficult jobs but, men fail in those jobs, as well.

    • My point is simply “state what you want and help people to be able to achieve what you want.” If you can’t state what you want, because you think you might have to go to court, then either state it and go to court, or don’t state it and don’t hold people to it. Not stating it and still holding people accountable is the pathway to management craziness (or Dilbertian, if you prefer).

      Helping people to achieve what you want would involve making sure that all the systems support what you are trying to do.. AVUE..policy by computer program. You gotta love it.

  3. At the risk of being considered a “humorless feminist” (remember those ;)?), I would argue that this is not a partisan issue. My two arguments are 1) various permutations have been going on since 1979 or before, plenty of administrations of either kind, and 2) there appears to be a difference between Interior and Agriculture within a given administration (this one). If others have observed Interior efforts occurring with equal levels of silliness, I would be interested in hearing about them.

  4. Sharon,
    As an avowed feminist myself, this issue makes a second-in-a-row, now (this along with the threat of privatization of recreation on NFS/NPS public lands) in which we stand side-by-side on solid ground together. The lack of diversity, of course, is not a partisan issue but a manifestation of how power gets wielded. “Silliness” is a harmful modifier — a gift to the perpetrators. Gender, race, minority status, and ethnicity, are clumsy metrics at best, for measuring true diversity.

    While virtually any alternative to a male WASP can occupy a seat of (allowed) authority, courage to speak principled truth to Power, is the highest expression and manifestation of real diversity. That’s precisely while real diversity is rarely represented in positions of power.

  5. You’re right David, I didn’t really mean silliness.I meant “getting on people for not doing things that you have allowed processes and procedures in place that make it almost impossible for them to to do those things.” Also “getting on people for not making a number when you don’t tell them directly what the number is.” I’m hoping “Dilbertian” is an adjective, because that’s pretty much what it is.

    The Forest Service sent me to numerous management training classes over the years. In none of them did we learn that “not telling people directly what they are accountable for” and “not giving them tools to do what you tell them” and “creating a climate where people can’t discuss their problems and better ways of doing things openly” were good management practices ;).

    I agree with you about telling truth to Power. Additionally, though, Power here also has to create a climate in which people’s truths (I’m not so sure that there is one Truth) in organizations can be spoken without punishment, and yet there is a culture where the boss hears, and decides, and the boss is the legitimate authority and everyone follows when the decision is made (with a minimal amount of post-decisional talking behind the boss’s back).

    This is delicate, difficult and very “organizational culture” -al; and I bet it might occur in the agency, but break down when the power is at higher levels. Political appointees come from a variety of management cultures, and many do not have any management experience or training. If I were going to develop a hypothesis for the underlying problem here, that’s where I would put it. I

    What do others think?

  6. Sharon, interesting how these “political appointees” don’t have any management experience or training and yet they have been put into positions of power, by some force or for some reason (maybe because they are of the right political persuasion?). And that is part of the underlying problem, in your words.
    How different is that from the political powers that forced Forest Service diversity by promoting persons into positions where they also expressed a lack of management experience or training? You put down my comment of the “old days” diversity issues with absolutely no expression of concern that possibly some of those rapidly advanced women were also lacking in management experience or training needed for DFRs.
    I am wholly and totally supportive of diversity. I truly believe in the concept. Whether it is gender or race or….whatever. My two plus years in Job Corps dealing with enrollees and staff who were 90 minorities would be a lie if I didn’t support that belief. There are places or positions where diversity can be served without much damage or impact on the processes or organization, but key managerial slots should not be filled with marginal or unqualified candidates.
    Your example of R2 with very low numbers of women in key roles caught my eye. Please realize that what I am about to express is based on old info from a bygone time…maybe. I never worked in R2, but was told by a reputable forest supervisor that the USFS culture in Utah was heavily influenced by the states “special” culture. Could this still be an issue? I suspect that you don’t want to go there, but the fact that you highlighted that region brought back some disturbing stories from that knowledgeable source who lived and worked there, albeit many years back. I sincerely hope those tales of the old days in R2 are no longer true.

    • Ed, you have made me think a bit about the “old days.” At the Retiree’s Rendezvous, there was a panel along the lines of “How Good were the Good Old Days?”. I will reflect on that in another post..

      Actually, Utah is in Region 4. After seven years of serving on the panel that reviewed District Rangers and staff placements (and serving on a couple of Supervisor and deputy panels), I have a variety of possible hypotheses..which I’ll explore when I have more time.

      I am always concerned about people not being qualified for their jobs. I have also seen nowadays jobs being reclassified at lower grades to be able to pick up more diverse applicants. Which is an OK management decision, but the poor people who have to do their own job plus get the person up to speed to do the work at the level it was originally graded out to be (plus probably doing that work for a couple of years)…tend to not get appreciated, not get paid a penny more. Just an observation.

  7. This is a topic I am interested in. A few thoughts:

    1. Impressions matter.
    2. My impression of federal hiring in general and USFS hiring especially is not good.
    3. USFS hiring policies seem to favor “diverse” people. Also veterans.
    4. If I remember well, demographic makeup of recent USFS hires don’t look too bad (OPM).
    5. USFS leadership reflects the hiring policies of the past.
    6. There will always be a certain number of overqualified minions and pointy-haired bosses.

  8. Re: Now why would people not check the box?

    I resent labels, especially when they are inaccurate and/or arbitrarily set. That and a “white” male doesn’t gain anything from checking the box.

  9. Oops. A real brain cramp from me on that R2 comment. I guess I will stay quiet on how things were in the old days. I know things are different now, better or worse, who knows.


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