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Diversity at the top: The King County story

Our most recent Governing column looked at growing efforts to increase diversity in the workforce. Local governments and states increasingly work to make sure that their employees mirror the population and many have been successful. But there are far fewer governments that have achieved balanced representation in the top layers of management and salary.

King County has been setting aggressive goals for that top layer. It already has a workforce that generally mirrors the community, says Matias Valenzuela, director of the office of equity and social justice. Now, its aim is to also achieve diversity in its management leadership and staff.

Here are some of the steps it has taken to get to that point.

Reaching out to employees. Several years ago, the county started engaging employees in the discussion. Managers tapped about 700 employees for conversations about their workplace experiences. They used these conversations to target the “systems, structures and barriers that are inequitable” within the organization, says Valenzuela.

Developing a strong measurement component. A 2016-2022 strategic plan outlined an HR roadmap for King County’s departments and agencies. The county built a better measurement system and it committed to publicly report on how departments are doing at meeting objectives.

Eliminating practices that screen people out.  “We’ve looked at our processes to see how we screen out people of color because of bias,” says Valenzuela.   One example is to de-emphasize degree achievement and emphasize instead the skills or competencies needed to do a good job.

Increasing awareness of implicit bias. Valenzuela shared with us the training video that the county uses to help interviewers see their unconscious biases. The video emphasizes that interviewers can make judgments they’re not even aware of. They may favor someone who went to the same university as they did or who grew up in the same neighborhood.

The basic message of the video, which is nicely done, is that “small biased judgments have a cumulative effect”. But the effects of unconscious bias diminish with greater awareness.  “Simply having the intention to evaluate candidates fairly and accurately can reverse the effects of bias,” the video concludes.

It points to this Harvard website on implicit bias for more information.


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