Road map to an effective diversity action plan

Glenn Kephart, P.E.
Public Works Manager
City of Tempe, Arizona
Member, APWA Diversity Committee

We all have heard a lot in recent years about the importance of diversity in public works organizations and in all organizations for that matter. But what does a diverse organization really entail—why is it important and how do you make it real? This article will touch briefly on what a diverse organization is and why it is important, but the main focus is on how to make it real.

What does a "diverse organization" really mean?
There are as many definitions of diversity as there are people with the capacity for having diverse thoughts. Sorting through all the definitions can be somewhat confusing at times. A diverse organization entails being inclusive and not just with ethnicity, age, gender and the common protected categories, but truly inviting all members of an organization, company or corporation to have their voice heard. Diversity is not and should not be a program, but in fact something that is integrated in all aspects of the workforce. Simply put, a diverse organization is nurturing, caring, inclusive, and understands the value of providing opportunities for the entire workforce to flourish and excel.

Why is it important to have a diverse organization?
The answer to this question will become clearer as we develop our road map towards building a diverse organization. But speaking from experience, I can tell you that as our organizational diversity improved so did our overall competency, creativity, productivity, and employee morale. The biggest one of these factors is employee morale. Employees who feel valued, enjoy their job, and understand the meaning behind their work will always consistently outperform and provide a better service to the community than employees who are disgruntled. Simply put, organizations that celebrate and support diversity and all of its principles are the best organizations.

A road map towards making it real

1. Obtain an accurate assessment of the current health of the organization. As with any road map, it is important to understand your starting point and desired end point before you can map your course. At the City of Tempe we identified our starting point through an extensive external audit of our current conditions. Existing policies and practices were thoroughly reviewed, all employees were surveyed, and focus groups were conducted with employees and middle managers. A diversity steering committee consisting of representatives from all levels of our organization was formed to work with the external consultant to help evaluate results. The results of our audit indicated that we had a ways to go to become the kind of organization we would hope to be.

Be cautious at this step and do not assume that the health of the organization reflects what you see from your office. If you are a leader in the organization, you may find that people will tend to tell you what you want to hear and will tend to refrain from bringing you negative news. This can result in an overly optimistic outlook of how well you are really doing. Regardless of what process you use to determine your current health, it is imperative to begin with an accurate assessment.

2. Develop the vision for where you want to be. Now that we have established the beginning point of our journey, we must next establish where we want to go. In our Public Works Department we did this through an inclusive process using the issues identified by the City's diversity audit and overall direction from our city manager. We developed our own vision statement of our ideal organization. It is as follows: "Our organizational culture will foster an environment in which people enjoy working and are proud to be a part of. Everyone will be treated fairly and provided with equal opportunities. Personal growth and risk taking will be encouraged, and at the end of each day we will feel proud of our accomplishments and the services that we have provided to the City of Tempe. We will feel good about how we have been treated and how we have treated others, and we will look forward to continuing our efforts the next day."

No one vision will fit all organizations, but it is important that the vision be developed through an inclusive process that reflects the uniqueness of each organization. A vision without buy-in from the people in the organization won't be much more than words. On the other hand, a vision developed through a process in which everyone is included and has a say, becomes the defining statement that guides the organization.

The Vision Poster developed by the Public Works Department

3. Institutionalize the Vision. Once the vision is developed, it cannot be repeated too many times. We routinely have fun at the beginnings of staff meetings asking someone to state our vision. You may think us a little strange to consider this fun, but it has been because our vision statement is so long and people routinely miss a piece of it. It got to the point where people would actually bring cheat sheets to the meeting. While we had fun with this we also realized that we needed a way to express our vision more concisely. To do this we called on the creativity of the entire department and held a contest asking people to submit ideas for a logo that would represent our vision. We received creative ideas from all levels of the organization. An employee recognition committee evaluated the entries and then a committee of the people with the best submissions was formed to combine the ideas from the best of the best. The resulting logo, including graphics, was developed completely in-house by Public Works staff and is a source of pride for our department.

4. Develop the road map inclusively. Now that you have established where you are and where you want to go, it is time to develop the specifics on how to get there. We began by brainstorming the key issues identified in our diversity audit and discussed what we are doing right and what additional things we need to do. This was the initial development of our diversity action plan which we later retitled "Healthy and Productive Work Environment Action Plan." We circulated the results of the initial brainstorming to all employees in Public Works, and received several rounds of comments which resulted in several revisions until we inclusively reached consensus on our plan. The key to this step, as with every other step, is the inclusive development of the plan. The inclusiveness helps to achieve buy-in from the entire staff which in turn helps to produce results.

It is extremely important at this point to make sure the entire leadership team from the director to the first-line supervisor is on board with the plan and that there is consistency throughout the organization. Nothing will sideline the journey faster than conflicting messages from the leadership team.

5. Use inclusive approach to navigate obstacles. A reality of public works organizations today is that we are always trying to do more with less. This was especially true of our organization, for as we were building our organizational road map we were forced through economic recession to find a way to reduce costs. The City opened up early retirement incentive opportunities and as a result our Public Works staff was reduced by approximately 10%. We used this as an opportunity to help build our organization towards the stated vision. Each section in which staff was going to be reduced was given the charge to throw away their present organizational chart and to create a new organizational structure that would work best for them. Everyone was involved and provided input and the new structures weren't approved until consensus was reached.

This downsizing challenge turned out to be one of the most powerful teambuilding exercises we could have ever done. The key to the success of this effort was, once again, inclusiveness. While involving everyone may take longer than a top-down approach and be frustrating at times, if you stick with it and stay focused, the results are well worth the effort.

6. Assign a navigator to watch the road. While most will agree that it is good to have an organizational culture vision and it is noble to develop a plan for diversity and inclusiveness, who has time? The reality of the public works world today is that people expect more and they want it now. Who has time for all this visioning stuff? The answer is that you need to create time, and don't assume you can do it without help. You most likely can't. In our city, having prioritized the importance of addressing diversity issues, an Office of Diversity and a new Diversity Director were established. (If you attend APWA's annual Congress in Minneapolis next September, you can hear firsthand from our Diversity Director, Rosa Inchausti, about her efforts towards developing an award-winning diversity program.)

In Public Works we restructured an existing management assistant position to create an assistant to the Public Works Manager in charge of organizational development. The person assigned to this new position has a background as a Social Services Counselor from community services with a master's of social work degree. This counseling background has proved invaluable as we navigate through our plan. Her specific responsibilities include development and implementation of supervisor training, providing a safe haven for all employees, assuring that we provide consistency for all disciplinary actions, assuring that all issues are followed up on towards final resolution, and monitoring and reporting the progress of our diversity action plan.

Provide your supervisors with the tools they need to be successful coaches.

7. Develop the tools needed to assure the journey's success. The success of the journey towards our desired organizational state is dependent on the tools developed to help us get there. In Public Works we all understand that the quality of our tools and our skill in using them has a direct relationship on our effectiveness. This is as true for organizational development as it is for repair of a police cruiser or sealing of the cracks in the road. Recognizing this fact, the City rewrote, through an extensive inclusive process, its rules and regulations. We also developed many other new tools to help us along the way. These tools include inclusive decision-making processes, a generous tuition reimbursement policy, mandatory training for all supervisors, communication and conflict resolution techniques, safe havens, manager field views, positive reinforcement, and other techniques focused towards helping supervisors to become effective coaches.

8. Develop the skills to use the tools. It is not enough just to develop the tools needed for a successful journey. People must become skilled at using the tools and this is especially important for all supervisors. A favorite example of mine is that you may know what a block plane looks like and you may even know that it is used to plane end grains and trim, but you can only learn how to effectively use one by using it. And the first time you try to plane the miter joint of a door casing you will likely split out the end. Learning to use tools requires training, perseverance, and an understanding that at first you will make mistakes. We set up a series of supervisors' workshops to help assure that our supervisors are not only given the knowledge of our organizational development tools, but provided detailed interactive training on how to use the tools, one at a time. We provided all of our supervisors with miniature handmade wooden toolboxes filled with symbolic tools and asked them to share with their staff the meaning of what each symbol represents. In addition, we promote an understanding and forgiving philosophy towards mistakes that will be made during the process, in hopes that our supervisors will not fear to use their new tools.

9. The journey never ends. As we have continued along our journey to our desired organizational culture, we have come to the realization that this journey can never end. Each step along the way our awareness of the kind of organization we can become is elevated and thus our ending point keeps progressing forward, and we continue to strive to progress towards it. This becomes real to us in the constant evaluation of our diversity action plan in which we continually review what are we doing right and what additional steps we need to do. The "what we are doing right" category keeps growing but so does the "what additional things we need to do" category. We have learned that the journey towards an effective and healthy work environment is more important than the destination.

10. Keep the journey fun. Above all, we have learned not to take ourselves too seriously. Since our vision included "fostering an environment in which people enjoy working..." finding ways to have fun is an important component of our plan. It is not reasonable to expect people to enjoy their environment if that environment does not include fun. We do this by encouraging ice cream socials, dragon boat races, providing foosball and ping pong tables in break rooms, and much more. But more importantly than these off-work activities is the attitude of the leaders of the organization during stressful work times. Keep a positive attitude and find ways to enjoy what you are doing regardless of the stresses. Your staff will follow your lead.

Reflections along the way
More than three years into our journey at the City of Tempe, we have discovered that the journey has become more enlightening and interesting than we could have ever anticipated. The collective ingenuity and creativity that has been integrated into our plan through an inclusive process could not have been predicted nor ever achieved without a completely inclusive process. The journey has become not something that we do in addition to our public works activities, but rather something that is integrated into everything we do. It has come to define who we are and what we stand for. We are constantly learning and our awareness of diversity issues is continually elevated.

If you seek you may find that your organization is loaded with people of diverse talents, thoughts and creativity beyond your wildest expectations. They're just waiting for you to ask. Bon Voyage!!

Glenn Kephart can be reached at (480) 350-8371 or at glenn_kephart@tempe.gov.

Components of a diverse organization:

  • Support from leadership
  • Diversity training
  • Safe haven for discussing issues
  • Diversity action plan - measurable outcomes
  • Systems of communication that are inclusive
  • Fair hiring and promotional practices
  • Inviting those affected by a decision to be part of the decision
  • Flexibility—remember, there are different paths to success
  • Accountability—why say we support diversity if we do not enforce the rules and regulations that reinforce the message
  • Coaching/mentoring program
  • Identifying a similarity from which to bridge our differences

The City of Tempe Public Works team, winners of the Tempe Human Relations Commission Annual Diversity Award, January 2004