New diversity officer aims to reshape work force makeup, management attitudes

The Interior Department has long lagged its peers in diversity, earning the distinction of being the only Cabinet-level agency to have a lower ratio of black employees than the corresponding civilian work force.

Amid recent criticism -- particularly from the advocacy group Blacks in Government -- Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has announced a series of initiatives in the past few months. And this week, he put John Burden in charge of it all as the department's first-ever chief diversity officer.

Burden is not new to Interior. He most recently served as the principal adviser to the deputy assistant secretary for human capital and diversity. But he said his new position will enable the agency to separate diversity efforts from compliance requirements. His job will be to educate managers, he said; the Equal Employment Office will handle the numbers.

"Now we've separated the function, it's clear now that this is not compliance," Burden said in a recent interview. "While compliance is important ... my main thing is we're recruiting, hiring and retaining the best people."

As of 2009, about 74 percent of Interior's permanent work force was white, according to the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Equal Opportunity Recruitment Program Report. Black employees made up 5.6 percent, compared to 9.2 percent in the "relevant civilian labor force."


There are even fewer Hispanic employees. They make up about 5.4 percent of Interior's work force, compared to 10.6 percent in the civilian work force. In fact, Interior fell behind on every minority group except for American Indians, who make up 11.6 percent of the agency's employees and 0.6 percent on the civilian side.

Blacks in Government condemned the numbers last year, releasing a report that called for Interior to hold managers responsible for diversity and fix what it called a "good old-boy network." Black employees, the report found, were leaving the agency in larger numbers than they were being hired.

"Black employees feel alienated from their peers and unsupported by supervisors on issues of diversity," Blacks in Government officials wrote. "Their feelings stem from larger problems in employment practices, recruitment, the promotion process, retention and a backlash to efforts to create diversity programs, which encourage action."

Burden attributed the department's issues to a federal system that treated diversity as one among a list of bureaucratic requirements. Managers, he said, "felt diversity was being done to them rather than with them."

Interior is now taking the time to educate managers on where to find diverse applicants and how to utilize special authority to speed up the hiring process for certain applicants. Burden will soon meet one on one with some managers; 50 "influential" managers will also go through diversity training.

"We don't want to make this a painful process. We want to make this as educational as possible," Burden said. "I think once we're up to speed with the educational pieces ... it's ultimately going be easier for managers."

But Interior officials will certainly have to deal with more paperwork. Salazar issued an "inclusive workplace strategy" to employees this week, requiring every bureau to submit diversity implementation plans by Sept. 30. Those plans will have to be updated every quarter, Burden said.

In a letter to employees, Salazar wrote that supervisors and managers "are expected to be role models who exhibit behaviors of inclusion, acceptance, and accountability."

"This Inclusive Workplace Statement is a first for us. It means establishing a Department that ensures no one is shut out or left behind," Salazar wrote. "We are the Department of America. We represent the people of this country from Yosemite National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Samoa and Guam, and the Virgin Islands. And as the Department of America, our ranks should reflect the face of the American public we serve."

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