Employees of color receive low performance ratings, promotions

Karen Rutzick for govexec.com quotes official documents to suggest that disparities in promotions, performance ratings are still based on race in the United States.

Ronald Stroman was hauled before a joint Senate-House hearing in May to explain why black analysts at the Government Accountability Office were receiving lower performance ratings than their white counterparts.

How did Congress know about the discrepancy? Stroman handed over the data himself — at least indirectly. And he’s glad that he did.

Stroman is managing director of the Office of Opportunity and Inclusiveness at GAO. When Comptroller General David M. Walker hired him in 2001, he gave Stroman a mandate to promote diversity at the agency. Stroman responded with a controversial suggestion: publicize all the agency’s promotions and performance ratings by race, gender, age, disability, veteran status, location and payband.

Senior GAO officials warned that this move would open the door to lawsuits and fuel unhappiness. But Walker approved the idea and Stroman began releasing the data annually on GAO’s intranet. Sure enough, from 2002 to 2005, the data revealed a gap between performance appraisals of blacks and whites. It also showed that the gap widened the longer employees stayed at the agency.

“I have stood outside the Rayburn House Office Building wearing a suit and a tie during the middle of the day, trying to hail a cab, only to have that cab driver pass me by in order to pick up a white person standing less than five feet behind where I stood,” Stroman told the committee. “Race, gender, ethnicity, disability, age and sexual orientation do matter.”

Airing the data on the intranet was the first step to solving discrimination, according to Stroman. “What gets measured gets done,” he says. “It becomes, I think, the linchpin to improving diversity.”

Stroman believes GAO is the first and only federal agency to release diversity data to employees. In fact, a number of federal employee groups — including Federally Employed Women and the African American Federal Executive Association — went to Congress recently with a request for data. They want the Office of Personnel Management to offer more detailed information on how many minorities, women, people with disabilities and veterans each agency employs. They didn’t go so far as to ask for data by promotion or performance rating.

“Current OPM reports group all minorities in grades GS-14, 15 and [the Senior Executive Service] together,” William A. Brown Sr., national president and founder of AAFEA and retired senior executive at the Army Corps of Engineers, told Congress in May. “This presents a distorted view of diversity. We need an accurate baseline to measure progress or lack thereof.”

Brown and his group are asking GAO to conduct a detailed study of diversity across all agencies. He wants to know, for example, whether his suspicions are true that blacks who reach the Senior Executive Service are older than others in the SES, giving them a shorter turn in power.

Brown’s urgency to get the data stems from the opportunity he sees to diversify the upper ranks of government as many retire in the coming decade. Stroman wants to protect employees from the new wave of pay for performance. He says such pay systems pave the way for discrimination by giving managers more room to be subjective.

More important than giving diversity data to Congress or even to advocacy groups is sharing it with middle managers, according to a new report from The Conference Board Inc., a nonprofit business research group in New York. Written by executives from corporations such as Avon Products Inc., Hewitt Associates, Merrill Lynch & Co. and Safeco Corp., among others, the report finds that middle managers are the biggest roadblock to diversity initiatives.

Middle managers, they said, are the ones who actually handle the promotions and performance reviews that executives from on high analyze for diversity. “The middle management layer seemingly douses the spreading diversity fire, smothering it through inertia rather than outright opposition,” according to the report.

To fan the fire, these executives say, give middle managers the data. The Conference Board recommends releasing diversity data four times a year.

“A common and legitimate complaint on the part of middle managers is that they don’t know the score,” the report noted. “They’re used to getting that data on a regular basis on inventory, productivity and response times and are expected to monitor these regularly and take necessary corrective action. Diversity should be no different.”

In Stroman’s discussions with GAO employees, he singled out a central reason for the discrepancies in performance scores: Managers were afraid to talk to their employees of color about their performance reviews.

“When [employees of color] get their ratings back, it is a surprise to them oftentimes,” Stroman says. “There is a different level of communication going on with regard to performance with staff of color than with white staff. I think that reflects the culture that we live in. Having difficult discussions at work is difficult in any setting, but when you overlay that with gender, race, sexual orientation, it becomes more difficult. That disadvantages the staff of color.”

But as much as Stroman and Walker believe in their system, it has opened them up to congressional backlash.

Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia, said at the hearing that members of GAO’s Blacks in Government branch came to him with concerns about the disparity between black and white analysts. The performance ratings had greater consequences for employees since a pay restructuring took place at GAO gave some employees a chance at higher pay and capped others at a lower level.

“It would appear that African-Americans at GAO have been harmed by the restructuring, and this brings into question the fairness and credibility of GAO’s performance management system,” Davis said at the hearing.

Other critics complain that the raison d’être for GAO’s diversity office–dealing with discrimination com-plaints–languishes. Janice Reece, general counsel for the GAO’s Personnel Appeals Board from 1999 to 2005, told lawmakers that GAO was underfunding Stroman’s office.

“The lack of resources for the operation of the civil rights office, or the office of opportunity and inclusiveness, has created substantial delays of processing in [Equal Employment Opportunity] complaints,” Reece said. “The delays caused many employees to inform me that they wanted to forgo their claims of discrimination completely.”

Stroman’s controversial approach of airing diversity statistics is starting to pay off. When GAO first started disseminating promotions and performance review data, employees who worked at the Washington headquarters were shown to have higher marks than their counterparts in field offices such as Atlanta, Dallas and San Francisco. After the disparity was revealed, ratings and promotions nationwide leveled out almost immediately. This shift gives Stroman hope that parity can prevail.