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By Carol McCreary-Maddox
In March 2013, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) African American Workgroup published the observations and recommendations of its “dialogue partners” regarding the obstacles that hinder the recruitment and advancement of African Americans in the federal workplace. The report cites seven obstacles as the most formidable impediments to equal opportunity in the federal workplace:
Obstacle 1: Unconscious biases and perceptions about African Americans
Obstacle 2: The lack of adequate mentoring and networking opportunities for higher lever and management positions
Obstacle 3: Insufficient training and development assignments
Obstacle 4: Narrow recruitment methods
Obstacle 5: A perception among African Americans in the federal workforce that inequality is widespread
Obstacle 6: Educational requirements
Obstacle 7: EEO regulations and laws are not adequately followed or effectively enforced.
Nothing about these observations seems new. It feels much like the same issues that have characterized the interaction of African-Americans with the more dominant Whites since the era of the Civil Rights Movement. Yet the EEOC FY2013 statistics show that 24,175 (71%) of the 33,978 charges resolved were found to have no basis in law. Perception does not appear to match the statistical reality.
EEOC is charged with eradicating discrimination in both the federal sector and private sector workplace. One has to wonder how effective the agency can be given the difference between perception and reality.
If public managers are seen as obeying the law, what more can or should be done? Three themes emerge from the obstacles cited by the African American Workgroup and may suggest logical next steps:
1) Unconscious bias permeates workplace relationships and decisions.
2) Micro-inequities have a scaffolding effect in the workplace.
3) The development of affinity groups is as important as the utility of networks and mentoring by upper management.
The American Values Institute explains that unconscious bias, or implicit bias, is a that was developed to explain why discrimination persists though polling shows are opposed to it. Dr. Anthony Greenwald and Dr. M.R. Benaji believe that social behavior is not completely under our conscious control – that our social behavior is driven by learned stereotypes that operate automatically when we interact with others.
In 1998, Greenwald and Benaji developed the Implicit Association Test to help people identify their biases. The prevailing thought is that we can do something about the behavior we can see or identify – that we can develop a conscious awareness of our biases. A desired next step would be to identify those hidden biases. Harvard University hosts a site with the Implicit Association Test: www.implicit.harvard.edu. As a practitioner myself, I posit the identification of our implicit biases, in both the dominant and minority groups, would be a starting point for each of the obstacles cited by EEOC.
Dr. Mary Rowe, an MIT ombudsman and adjunct professor of Negotiation and Conflict Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has dedicated much of her career to the study of micro-inequities and micro-affirmations. She identified “little issues” or little acts of disrespect that seemed to corrode professional relationships. Such acts included names mistakenly left off a list, failure to accommodate a group’s religious, cultural or physical needs. Dr. Rowe defined micro-inequities as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’” She contends that micro-inequities have been a principal scaffolding for discrimination in the U.S. and a problem since it is unconscious and unrecognized.
In the same breath, she also states that a cure seemed to be the use of micro-affirmations. “Micro-affirmations are tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring and graceful acts of listening. Micro-affirmations lie in the practice of generosity, in consistently giving credit to others –in providing comfort and support when others are in distress … include fair, specific, timely, consistent and clear feedback that help a person build on strength and correct weakness.” Most importantly, the consistent and intentional act of using micro-affirmations would become an unconscious act. Her recommended steps would be for managers to pay attention to “small things” and through appreciative inquiry relevant to micro-affirmation “lead” rather than “push” people to accomplishment.
According to Dr. Rowe, “Small things are especially important with respect to feelings.” Micro-affirmations have several immediate impacts. Affirming the work of another is likely to help that person do well. Second, consistent, appropriate affirmation spreads from one person to another and lifts morale and productivity. Third, consistent affirmation tends to block the delivery of unconscious slights.
The EEOC African American Workgroup found that continued utility of networks was useful but underutilized. It also found that executives who mentored and coached minorities to a greater performance level also sent a message across the organization regarding the importance of diversity. The Workgroup also found great value in the development and inclusion of affinity groups – small groups that organized socially around a common goal or need. Such groups provided a broader forum for getting to know each other and form community. The report cited the CIA’s efforts in the development of affinity groups. An alternative example includes the Carl T. Rowan Chapter of Blacks in Government (CTRBIG), The Council for Career Entry Professionals (CCEP), Disability Action Group (DAG), Executive Women at State ([email protected]), Returned Peace Corps Volunteers ([email protected]). It would be interesting to note that the EEOC recruited members for the African American Workgroup to include Blacks in Government (BIG); Federally Employed Women (FEW); and the African American Federal Executives Association (AAFEA). Additionally, there are many opportunities to volunteer with other professional organizations and chapters – ASPA, ASTD, PMI.
Though the EEOC African-American Workgroup stopped short of making specific recommendations, it did urge more study regarding unconscious bias in order to determine its prevalence and effects on the federal sector. Those researchers that have studied the situation seem to suggest that we search ourselves for previously unidentified bias, learn to listen more closely, deliver feedback in a more timely manner, choose to affirm and support each other, learn about each other, find a project that we can work on together, and socialize during non work hours.
Carol McCreary-Maddox is an Ed.D Candidate in the School for Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate Institute. After a ten year tenure as an Administrative Officer for two high profile investigations into Executive Branch malfeasance, she began a career as a trainer and consultant. It has been a life-long challenge for her to help varied and diverse groups to value the differences but bridge the divides.