Investing in diversity may make you a better employer
Teri Black is the president of Teri Black & Co., LLC, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maxine Gullo is the assistant city administrator for Carmel-by-the-Sea and can be reached at email@example.com. Reina Schwartz is a former city manager for Clayton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tony Winney is the assistant city manager for Coronado and can be reached at email@example.com.
The struggle to recruit and attract stellar employees is real. This starts with the city manager position and runs across the organization. Retirements, generational shifts, and changing attitudes about work-life balance have shifted employee loyalties and tenures. Many of us are wondering how to stop the churn and make our organizations places where people want to work and stay for long stretches of their careers.
One way to ensure that your organization remains a choice employer is to invest in diversity recruitment and retention. It is also incumbent upon us as city leaders to ensure that our workforce reflects the demographics of the communities we represent and that our organizations are places where employees feel supported.
“Diversity and inclusion are more than age, religion, gender, race, [or] physical ability,” says Marta Steele, a workplace expert and partner at PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm. “It’s also about how different points of view are accepted and valued.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are not buzzwords. A diverse workforce brings together a variety of perspectives, experiences, and ideas that promote creativity and innovation — two things that every city manager wants. This can encourage open discussions and lead to better-informed and more comprehensive decision-making.
Multiple viewpoints and lived experiences also help organizations avoid groupthink. This psychological phenomenon can lead to suboptimal outcomes, particularly when you are crafting policy responses that will affect marginalized members of your community.
More importantly, when city organizations reflect the diversity of their communities, they increase community trust and engagement. This leads to better relationships between the city and its residents and ultimately, better services.
Attitudes and demographics are changing
So how has the city manager profession fared since 2020? Data shows that we have a long way to go. In 2023, the California City Management Foundation (CCMF), in partnership with the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, conducted a comprehensive survey of city managers in California. The study shows that while the top of the city management profession has become more diverse over the past few decades, it is still not reflective of our communities. Change has come at a glacial pace.
According to the 2020 US Census, 41% of Californians identify as white alone, 39% as Hispanic/Latino, 16% as Asian American or Pacific Islander, 5% as Black, and 14% as multiracial. A little over 1% identify as Native American or Alaska Native.
However, the face of city managers is radically different. Seventy-four percent of respondents identified as white, 15% as Hispanic or Latino, 6% as Asian, and 5% as Black or African American. Smaller percentages identified as American Indian or Pacific Islander.
Seven percent of city managers identified as “other.” CCMF respondents were not asked if they identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, despite California having one of the highest populations of LGBTQ+ individuals in the nation. Even though nearly 10% of California adults identify as LGBTQ+, their experiences were excluded from the conversation.
While the percentage of women to men in California is evenly split, the estimated number of women city managers is only 24%. That number is even lower nationwide.
But why mention this? Imbalances like these are present in a variety of ways in our organizations — from the city manager position to human resources and public works. These imbalances can significantly impact whether prospective employees view our organizations as welcoming and inclusive workplaces.
It’s also important to remember that there are generational differences when it comes to attitudes towards diversity in the workplace. In a 2020 Monster survey, 83% of Gen Z candidates said that a company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is important when choosing an employer. Gen Z also defines diversity as a mix of experiences, identities, ideas, and opinions, rather than the traditional definition of diversity, which focuses on underrepresented racial, ethnic, and gender demographics.
Recruitment, retention, and beyond
Weaving diversity into your recruitment and retention efforts is key to becoming a top-tier talent magnet. If you’re hiring for the city manager position, start by engaging an executive recruitment firm that has a track record of placing diverse candidates and is open to considering those who may have a different background and/or professional experiences.
Whatever position you’re hiring for, remember that underrepresented candidates may need more encouragement as many believe that they are not qualified. Others may have different preparation or interview needs when competing for a position for the first time.
City leaders can also empower human resources to create more diverse candidate pools by reviewing existing classifications and changing minimum qualifications to be more reflective of needed skills. Flexible workplace policies can increase participation in the workforce by those who would otherwise be excluded due to other demands, such as challenging child care schedules and other caregiving responsibilities.
You may also want to conduct a holistic review of your human resource policies and hiring strategies to determine where unconscious bias may exist. This will provide baseline data to measure your progress going forward.
Tracking year-to-year success and determining when course adjustments are needed is imperative for effective management and accountability. A long-term commitment to diversity initiatives requires not only supporting data but sustained focus — as several organizations have discovered in recent years.
“If they weren’t invested for the right reasons to start when they created these positions and hiring, and it was more for optics, it’s of no surprise that they are removing these DEI positions when no one is apparently watching,” said Amy Hull, director and head of DEI at human resources services company Paycor.
Make sure you are engaging in diversity, equity, and inclusion for the right reasons and in a way that addresses the challenges at hand in your organization. It is crucial to ensure that your work does not enhance dominant narratives, such as the belief that inequality doesn’t exist or that it is too time intensive.
DEI is a winning value proposition for both councils and city managers who want to hire the best and brightest, while also providing an environment where diversity of opinions and innovation is valued. Even small but sustained investments and changes to your policies can provide exceptional returns, turning you into the employer that people yearn to remain with, and others want to join.
To learn more about ways to overcome workforce challenges, attend the “DEI Recruitment at All Levels of Your Organization” breakout session at the League of California Cities Annual Conference and Expo, Sept. 20-22.