Minority Employees Slam House Dem Plan To Boost Diversity at State Department

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May 25, 2021

Minority employees and union leaders say a House Democratic plan to boost diversity hiring at the State Department will crush workforce morale and drive staffers out of the agency, according to correspondence obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The bill, which the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved for advancement last week, would require the State Department to recruit minority candidates from outside of the foreign service for mid-level positions—allowing these hires to bypass the typical foreign service officer career path, which starts at the entry level. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass (D., Calif.) and has 71 cosponsors, 70 of whom are Democrats.

While supporters say the bill is necessary to promote more diversity, minority employee advocacy groups and the department's union argue that it could be detrimental to the effectiveness of the department and negatively affect morale. The groups say the State Department doesn't have a problem hiring diverse candidates but fails to retain them because there aren't enough opportunities for promotion at the mid and upper levels.

The Pickering and Rangel Fellows Association, the State Department's top employee affinity group for representing minority employees, said it had "deep concerns regarding H.R. 1096, the Represent America Abroad Act of 2021" in a May 17 letter to the foreign service officers' union, the American Foreign Service Association, that was obtained by the Free Beacon.

The group said it supports diversity efforts but warned this bill "could further impede the career advancement of current mid-level [foreign service officers] from underrepresented groups that already face significant barriers to advancement. These include hundreds of alumni of the Pickering and Rangel fellowships."

The American Foreign Service Association has argued for months that "aspects of this legislation would be detrimental to the effectiveness, morale, and cohesion of the Foreign Service at State."

"The U.S military does not appoint someone from the outside at the rank of major or lieutenant colonel for a reason – they do not have the requisite experience and training," said AFSA in a letter. "We do not have a shortage of a mid-level officers. We do have a shortage of overseas mid-level positions that is already causing serious morale and retention problems. We do, of course, have a serious problem with diversity in the middle ranks of the Foreign Service, which in part is tied to retention and attrition."

Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas) noted during a hearing last week that the State Department's chief diversity and inclusion officer, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, told him that she objected to elements of the bill as "off base," arguing that it "would essentially allow people who have the same credentials as entry-level officers to join the foreign service at a much higher level."

The State Department came under fire for a lack of diversity in its leadership last year, after a Government Accountability Report found that ethnic minorities account for 13 percent of employees at the executive level, compared with 24 percent of employees overall. The State Department appointed a working group to investigate but told Congress this month that it was unable to find "a clear and consistent disparity" in promotions.

Another State Department group that represents minority employees said in an email memo this month there are widespread concerns about the bill.

"Many feel the Department currently does a decent job recruiting new officers, but the bigger problem is how to fully utilize the people we already have and not drive them out due to bad managers," the group said. "Ultimately, people are worried people entering laterally will be mid-management but will be less effective at navigating the building/offices/relationships and ultimately make the Department's policy work less effective."

Balancing Act at State, an employee group that advocates for increased child care access, said it conducted a survey of its members that found "a strong majority was opposed" to the legislation, which "would have a minimal [positive] long-term impact and may even negatively impact diversity and morale."

Working in Tandem, an employee group for spouses who both work in foreign service, also opposes the plan.

"The Foreign Service already hires a diverse workforce—what we have proven unable to do is retain and promote that workforce. Efforts to hire more officers will do little to improve our diversity until a serious effort is made to retain the diverse workforce we already have," the group said in a recent letter to the American Foreign Service Association.

Bass disagrees. "The Biden administration's intentional push to put racial equity and diversity at the center of every facet of their policy agenda is absolutely crucial to the success of their initiatives," she said in a statement in February. "This bill is consistent with that effort."

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a floor vote. Bass did not return a request for comment.


Update May 26, 8:55 a.m.: A previous version of this piece misattributed a quote from Rep. McCaul to Rep. Scott Perry.

Published under: State Department