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Developing Leaders in the Public Sector: Masking and Cultural Competency

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dan Krejci
January 2, 2015

Column 4: Why the mask, is it Halloween?

In the first article of this series, I discussed various ways people perceive and react to confrontation. In article two, I linked these concepts to leadership and ethics. In the third, I continued the discourse on leadership development by adding two more components essential for educating public administrators (as noted in the public administration literature)—knowledge of workplace diversity and a sense of social equity. 

Krejci jan15In this article, I discuss an activity organizations may engage in to make them appear culturally competent—demonstrated by their eagerness to embrace workplace diversity and social equity—but the activity is a facade. I define this activity as masking. In addition, I present tactics to deal with this activity in the public sector.


Masking is when an organization appears culturally competent, but its ulterior motive is to maintain power and control within a select organizational group. An organization engaged in masking may have a diverse workforce, enact policies for promoting social equity through a variety of ways including (but not limited to) affirmative action, equal employment opportunity, prevention of a hostile workplace (including sexual harassment prevention), and appear to include its diverse workforce in policymaking activities. However, this is only a pretense. Masking is an effort to make it difficult for people outside of the organization to detect its true nature, but like in Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, sooner or later someone removes the mask to reveal what is hidden.

In Diversity and Public Administration: Theory, Issues and Perspectives, Mitchell Rice provides public agencies with an insightful cultural competence self-assessment questionnaire. This assessment assists organizations that want to increase their level of cultural competency. However, there are ways to ascertain if an organization is culturally incompetent by simply observing the makeup and actions of the organization. A culturally incompetent organization may appear to do things right, but will not be able to keep up this appearance.

First, observe the workforce of the organization—is it homogenous or heterogeneous? If heterogeneous, is this throughout the organization or is it limited at the levels above middle management? Second, is organizational policy made by a select few or does the administrative leadership accept frank discourse and ideas from all organizational groups when it makes policy decisions? Third, is the organization governed by rule of law or personality? Fourth, are the diverse members of the organization and their ideas embraced by the organization or are they persuaded to assimilate to the organizational culture? Finally, are minorities (protected classes) considered during job searches, but few hired?

If the answers to these questions are contrary to what is expected of a culturally-competent organization, the organization is engaged in masking. What can people do when they discover their organization engages in masking?

Conclusion: What to Do?

I am amazed by websites that recommend you leave an organization if you find it engaged in creating a hostile environment or if you have a troublesome supervisor. Frankly, I am even more astounded when this is recommended for people who work for public organizations.

I understand why a person would leave a culturally incompetent private organization rather than deal with hostile issues. However, when a person accepts a position with a public organization, this person must accept a higher order of responsibility regarding his/her duties based on principle, consequences and virtue/intuition (Ethics Triangle), as noted by Svara in The Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations.

Based on the previous articles, I recommend you stay with the organization, collect as much data as possible to support any claims, attempt to resolve the matter internally, but be prepared to go outside of the organization (whistleblowing). You must be pragmatic—you will face opposition and possibly retaliation for your efforts. This may even cause the end of a promising career. However once begun, you must be willing to see your actions through to the end—do not expect to be hailed a hero.

Why take this action? Frankly, if you are going to be a public servant, be a public servant who truly puts the public first. I am excited to see the public administration profession engaged in discourse that combines leadership, ethics, diversity in the workplace and social equity in order to promote cultural competency. Yet, I am more inspired when I see positive actions being taken by the profession based on the prevailing discourse. In other words, action—not lip service—is what is truly needed to promote cultural competency in public organizations.

Author: Dan Krejci, associate professor, is a faculty member of the NASPAA accredited MPA Program at Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama. He received his MPA Degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Texas Tech University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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