Blog Inclusion in Public Sector Workplaces

Public Sector Inclusion: Beyond Legal Requirements

businesspeople having a meeting
by Dr. Maren Trochmann:

Current and future leaders in the public sector need an understanding of the legal requirements which protect against discrimination. Yet, these legal parameters, enshrined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation, provide only a baseline. While necessary to shield individuals from specific types of employment discrimination, these laws do not necessarily guide public sector workplaces toward meaningful inclusion.

The legal foundations provide a basis upon which we can – and must – build more inclusive and equitable practices and policies. An inclusive public sector workplace requires both individual action and structural change. Individuals must be committed to deep self-reflection on their implicit biases and an honest reckoning with historic and structural barriers and imbedded inequities.

Simple compliance with EEO laws will not be enough to foster a diverse workplace, let alone an inclusive one. As Professor john a. powell notes, though most of us actively disavow racism [or sexism or other types of identity-based discrimination], our actions and decisions do not always align with our professed ideals. Only through continual and intentional grappling with our own implicit bias – leaning further into that which makes us uncomfortable – might we overcome these insidious barriers to an inclusive workplace. Whether through tools like Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, targeted group trainings and meaningful conversations around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), building and fostering relationships across difference, and/or individual learning from books or podcasts by DEI experts, the work of unpacking our biases is a continual process. It requires we shift from a mentality of box-checking (i.e., compliance with EEO laws or posting a non-discrimination statement) to one of continual curiosity and growth. It assumes our internal work to be more equitable and inclusive is never done.

In my MPA class on managing public sector human resources, we do an activity in which I ask students how they will ensure equity and promote diversity in a hypothetical hiring process for a public or nonprofit organization. Inevitably, one or more students will say they will do a “blind” evaluation of application materials – assuming they can provide a completely neutral review of the candidates, ignoring elements of identity such as gender, race, or ethnicity. I push back on such a sentiment, well-intentioned as it may be. We talk about examples where having a fuller picture of a candidate’s identity, background, and lived experience might actually lead us to make decisions that are more equitable and actively promote diversity. We ask: what about the candidate who was unable to take a competitive, unpaid internship opportunity due to their socioeconomic status and financial need? What about the mother or caregiver who has great experience but gaps in their résumé? What about a candidate who has relevant lived experiences that will help them to relate to and advocate for the citizens your organization serves?

Not only may a so-called neutral approach lead to a less diverse workforce, but it may also preclude the possibility of an inclusive organization in which people are encouraged to bring their whole, authentic selves. It implies that aspects of individual identities are barriers or challenges to overcome rather than strengths to be acknowledged and developed.

Bernice King asserts, “Being ‘colorblind’ is not the solution to racism. See people fully. Love people deeply.” The same could be said of sexism, transphobia, ableism, and all forms of intersectional oppression that are often perpetuated both within systems and organizations and by individuals who may be unaware of their own implicit biases. An inclusive, diverse, and equitable public service means both compliance with EEO laws and going beyond the mere legal requirements. It compels us to see people fully and, in doing so, allow them to bring their full, authentic selves to the workplace.

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About the author:

Maren Trochmann, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and the MPA Program at the College of Charleston (SC). Dr. Trochmann’s research focuses broadly on how the public sector can be more equitable, just, and humane for both the individuals working in public organizations and for the public they serve. Her areas of research interest include social equity, public personnel administration, and housing policy. You can find her publications in Administrative Theory & Praxis, Politics & Policy (forthcoming), and in several edited scholarly volumes. She teaches classes on public administration, public sector HRM, housing policy, ethics, and research methods.