Case Study: Building an Agency That Looks Like America

When Erin Holmes, project leader and refuge manager at Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge in Sherwood, Ore., heads out to the field to check on a project, she said she makes sure to have her hearing aids. Even with the aids, which she says help a lot, her hearing is not 100 percent.

Holmes said it is hard to believe she has been with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for nearly 13 years. “I have seen some good times and rough times, but like with any family, I am proud of what I do and who I work for and I am sticking with the service,” she said.

As the service strives to become an employer that looks like the country it serves, it cannot leave out people with disabilities. To ensure this, President Barack Obama, like past presidents, has issued several orders aimed at improving the hiring of people with disabilities, starting in 2010 with Executive Order 13548 — Increasing Federal Employment of Individuals with Disabilities. In August 2011, Obama reaffirmed the goal “to promote the federal workplace as a model of equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion” when he signed Executive Order 13583 — Establishing a Coordinated Government-wide Initiative to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Federal Workforce.

While still a work in progress, the service is laying the groundwork for successful recruitment, hiring and retention of people with disabilities. That foundation will pay dividends. The conservation world faces challenges from invasive species to water scarcity, and having the unique experiences of various people and backgrounds — including individuals with disabilities — means it also has new ways to look at these challenges, generate solutions and spotlight unseen problems.

Creating a Five-Year Plan
A significant piece of the groundwork was to develop a U.S. Fish and Wildlife five-year diversity and inclusion implementation plan. It was developed by members of the service leadership and Equal Employment Opportunity Director Inez Uhl. The plan’s goal is to help managers move beyond viewing diversity as a numerical representation of groups to embracing it and leveraging it to discover and engage great talent. It also will advance employees’ understanding of inclusion and increase their empathy toward others.

The plan was adopted in February 2011, and in a memo, acting director Rowan Gould — now the service’s deputy director for operations — stated: “Just as biological diversity promotes survival in nature, workforce diversity is essential to the service’s survival. It is a proven fact that organizations are more innovative and robust when they include a diversity of skills, perspectives, ideas and backgrounds.”

To meet the many conservation challenges it is facing, such as accelerating climate change, habitat fragmentation and urbanization, the service needs a diverse workforce and the innovative, resourceful and productive solutions such a workforce brings. Because society is multicultural and many of its conservation challenges are global, the service workforce must become more sensitive to and develop a better understanding of a variety of cultures and subcultures, including the culture of disability.

The plan established specific goals to explore best practices to recruit, hire and retain people with disabilities as it develops a more diverse workforce in general. So far the service has:

• Established hiring goals for individuals with disabilities. Leadership meets quarterly to review progress and develop recruitment strategies to reach groups with low participation.

• Strengthened the outreach and recruitment efforts for individuals with disabilities and targeted disabilities. The service has hired nine full-time recruiters, one for each regional office, dedicated to developing partnerships that increase diverse applicants and the use of special hiring authorities.

• Developed an interagency agreement with the Office of Personnel Management to assist in hiring individuals with disabilities via a disability recruitment firm.

• Established performance measures to assess the effectiveness of recruitment efforts.

• Ensured managers and supervisors are educated and trained to use direct hiring authorities and resources available for recruiting, promoting and retaining employees with disabilities. It also conducted special emphasis programs and diversity awareness events for supervisors and employees at locations throughout the service.

• Made it a priority to train managers on how to make the workplace accessible for individuals with disabilities.

• Monitored the participation of individuals with targeted disabilities in career development and formal leadership training programs.

Strengthening outreach and recruitment efforts is already showing signs of success. The service has formed partnerships with veterans programs and state departments of rehabilitative services to bring in qualified individuals with disabilities to fill needed jobs. In 2011, the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services (DRS) honored the service as a Champion in Leadership for this partnership.

By working with the Virginia DRS, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s headquarters office in Arlington, Va., provided 12 candidates from the Virginia DRS with unpaid 90-day work experience opportunities. Many of these people turned that experience into permanent jobs. Seventy-five percent of them were hired full time when positions opened up.

The service also sends job leads to the Virginia DRS placement counselor and uses Schedule A hiring authority, which allows agencies to conduct job interviews and hire highly skilled, qualified candidates more quickly. Further, the service’s disability and diversity team travels to the Virginia DRS to present the service mission and tell interested candidates about careers in conservation. The team conducts mock interviews and offers feedback to the interviewees.

Reaching Out to Veterans
The service is also participating in programs such as Operation Warfighter — a federal internship program for wounded, ill and injured military service members — to give injured veterans a chance to gain work experience and to continue their service to America. Some make conservation their new career, protecting America’s wildlife as they once protected its citizens. Others use their time with the service to build their resumes, explore employment interests, develop job skills and prepare for the future. In 2011, the service hired 277 veterans, disabled and non-disabled, and it will continue to make hiring veterans a priority.

Further, the service recognizes that agencies and companies must make every effort to include veterans in the workplace community and offer them training opportunities to advance their skills. In February, the service graduated its first diversity change agent training class. These 60 employees at all levels of the agency will serve as mentors and advocates for workforce diversity.

Class members were nominated from across the country to participate in this five-day training seminar. The training was facilitated by the Franklin Covey Group and John Burden, chief diversity officer at the Department of the Interior. The training, first developed and instituted by the Department of the Interior in 2010, seeks to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace through employee engagement, cultural competency initiatives, training and development, and recruitment and retention.

Diversity change agents serve as mentors and advocates for their peers and new and prospective employees. They encourage managers and supervisors to champion job shadowing and mentoring initiatives, and develop relationships with hiring managers and others to help facilitate qualified, diverse hires. Others work to make the workplace as friendly for individuals with disabilities as possible.

Cedric McLaurie, an operations manager in the Office of Information, Resources and Technology Management, has been polishing up his sign language skills. He learned signing in school, but he has gone back to get accreditation so he can communicate with deaf employees.

McLaurie said he wants to be able to talk quickly to his employees without relying on sign language interpreters. He is still learning, but he said he was able to communicate effectively at a recent job fair at Gallaudet University, a school known for educating deaf and hard of hearing students and a partner with the service in recruitment efforts.

Service leaders said the organization has a long way to go, but it has taken the first steps in a series of long-term commitments to create an inclusive workplace — one that offers every individual the opportunity to attain personal goals, grow and contribute to accomplishing its mission.

Matthew Trott is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He can be reached at