What are the obstacles to addressing workforce inequities through hiring? In this interview, we speak with Daniel Garcia, Senior Equity and Inclusion Policy Advisor for Multnomah County to discuss how Multnomah County’s Workforce Equity and Strategic Plan is functioning to catalyze organizational change.
Q: Can you please give an overview of the Workforce Equity and Strategic Plan, and how it functions to address equity issues that your organization is facing right now?
We have a huge gap in diversity and equity in the Multnomah County workforce. When you put the data together with a lot of the qualitative experiences that were expressed – you can’t paint any other picture than “this is something we have to deal with” or it’s going to become a crisis. When I first came to the county in 2013 – at that point, 30% of our workforce was 10 years or less within retirement age. We don’t have the workforce in our area to fill all those positions. That’s a huge issue.
The biggest challenge is taking what we know and taking what we’ve learned, or what we think we know, and turning that over into actual organizational sea change, and that comes in the form of the Workforce Equity and Strategic Plan. It is born from our employer resource groups who have been able to communicate things that have been going on- what everyone knows but is afraid to talk about. Our employee workforce groups were essential in creating this plan.
The challenge right now is turning this plan into tangible results that people can feel. The rubber is hitting the road. Now we need to figure out – how is this going to be embedded into our culture? Our values explicitly call out social justice as a value. What does this actually look and feel like? In terms of achieving an equitable organization – making that a reality across all the departments – that’s where the challenge is. We have a lot of different depts with a lot of different cultures, each unto themselves.
Traditionally all departments have been pretty siloed. One of the larger struggles that jurisdictions will face in trying to create that common language and common history and having a common equity framework with measurable expectations when organizations are siloed. We need to make that consistent across the organization and still relevant and specific to the needs of each department.
Each department has its own culture. How do you get each department culture lined up to have the continuity in equity work? We’re getting there but it’s a struggle. The larger the organization, the deeper the work is to get there. It’s not just a singular group, team or unit – it’s the philosophy of any leadership team might be completely different from middle management. I think through this journey, many of our leaders are realizing, “Oh, what I experience at this upper level and what I assume gets transferred into other layers of the organization…isn’t necessarily what’s happening.”
Through this process there’s a gap that’s closing between leadership, direct service staff and management. Leadership is also recognizing that there are some people where whatever’s going on is completely unacceptable. And those things need to be dealt with. Now that we’re trying to figure out how to operationalize the work – you uncover more problems. My father-in-law always tells me, “When you fix something in a car, you end up finding more problems. One noise covers up another noise.”
We also know that when someone moves up in an organization – the more positional authority someone has, their levels of empathy start decreasing. When that happens, and people get more power and are doing this work, all of a sudden there’s a false sense of need to separate from the rest. The empathy gap needs to be closed. It’s an essential skill for leadership.
Q: How do you build empathy and understanding into governmental structure?
It’s a reshaping what it means to be a manager of people. At the top of that pyramid is not necessarily outcomes, or results, but rather – empathy. For me, a good manager is someone who gets their team what they need to be successful. I think that kind of thinking is – how can I bring the best out of people around me, rather than how do I get the best out of people for ME.
Also, everything rolls down home. If there’s leadership that doesn’t show empathy or is engaging the workforce, that sends an implicit message to the community. One thing I know is that, before I came to Multnomah County – you always hear stories from other POCs – saying “Ohhh, you better be careful if you start working in the government.” But those stories come from employees that enter into public service, hit walls, and don’t feel like there are people empathizing with them, and that unspoken culture takes over.
Q: Can you give an example of running into one of these particular roadblocks?
In setting up and supporting teams and managers and employees, oftentimes we’ll use alternative dispute resolution processes – specifically mediation as a tool. At the same time, if you have a hammer, everything is a nail. And me being a professional mediator, it was easy for me to treat things like a mediation. But then when I recognize that using this particular process might not be the best process in certain situations. For instance, highly racialized situations. Plus, the fact that mediation is confidential – meaning that other issues that come up during these conversations – get cordoned off and they become untouchable. Now I’m bound to confidentiality in these issues. Where situations get shifted over to mediation, but there was an interpersonal dynamic, yes – but the larger issues were institutional workflow, management dynamics – it can be hard to make systematic change.
And these dynamics affect everybody!
And when I come out of mediation and talk to people, I can point out the super high-level dynamic that we’re not addressing. When I bring these issues to managers, there would be a strong pushback. That was the scope of what I could do about it. The more I pressed on it, the more it got minimized. The issue is framed as though, “Those people have a problem,” not that there are policy and practice issues that caused the problem.