Obama Wants Senior Leaders at Interior, NOAA to Receive Training to Combat ‘Unconscious Bias’

Evan Vucci/AP

President Obama is directing federal agencies that oversee natural resources to make mandatory “unconscious bias” training for senior leaders and managers as part of a larger effort to promote diversity within the federal workforce.

In one of his last memoranda as president, Obama said he wanted to “ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to experience and enjoy our public lands and waters, that all segments of the population have the chance to engage in decisions about how our lands and waters are managed, and that our federal workforce -- not just the sites it manages -- is drawn from the rich range of the diversity in our nation.” The directive is aimed specifically at the Interior Department; Forest Service; Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works; and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Employees responsible for outreach, recruitment, hiring, career development, promotion, and law enforcement, also are subject to the mandatory training. “The provision of training may be implemented in a phased approach commensurate with agency resources. Each covered agency shall also make available training on a two-year cycle for bureaus, directorates, or divisions for which inclusion scores, such as those measured by the New IQ index, demonstrate no improvement since the previous training cycle,” the Jan. 12 memo said.

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Unconscious bias refers to stereotypes and other biases about groups of people that individuals are not consciously aware of. The bias can relate to race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, or other characteristics.  

Agencies affected by the memo are “strongly encouraged to consider implementing performance and advancement requirements that reward and recognize senior leaders’ and supervisors’ success in fostering diverse and inclusive workplace environments and in cultivating talent, such as through participation in mentoring programs or sponsorship initiatives, recruitment events, and other opportunities,” the directive said.

The memorandum builds on Obama’s 2011 executive order directing the federal government to promote diversity and inclusion in the workforce as part of his effort to make government a model employer. As a result of that and other executive orders, for instance, federal agencies have hired more veterans and disabled individuals since the administration prioritized it.

Agencies covered under the directive are supposed to conduct periodic interviews with a cross-section of employees to get input on retention strategies, workplace policies and professional development opportunities; provide optional exit interviews for departing employees; collect information on recruitment and retention strategies; expand professional development opportunities such as detail assignments and fellowship programs; and offer and sponsor employees to participate in a Senior Executive Service Candidate Development program or other training to gain skills necessary for jobs in senior leadership.

Human resources offices and the Office of Personnel Management should continue to monitor agencies’ efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the workforce, the memo said.

The push for a more diverse workforce at those agencies overseeing national parks, forests and other recreation areas is designed to help make those treasures more accessible, particularly to minority, low-income and disabled communities. Agencies covered under the directive have to update policies, identify challenges and devise strategic plans to ensure that “all Americans can experience federal lands and waters and the benefits they provide, and that diverse populations are able to provide input to inform the management and stewardship of these important resources,” stated the memo. Obama made clear he wanted natural resources agencies to do a better job reaching out to diverse populations.

Presidential memoranda, like executive orders, do not carry the force of law, so it’s possible the Trump administration will simply ignore this one, and not hold agencies accountable for it.

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