Congressional Offices Look To Make Their Staffs More Diverse
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Congressional Offices Look To Make Their Staffs More Diverse

By Bill Leonard  8/19/2008
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Diversity among employees of congressional offices has never been a terribly high priority on Capitol Hill—until now.

Since the Democrats resumed control of both houses of Congress in 2006, the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have been encouraging members of Congress to actively hire more minorities.

Reid and Pelosi have been known as proponents of hiring minorities. Reid has stated that congressional staffs should more closely resemble the diverse population of the United States. At first glance, Reid, who is a Mormon from Searchlight, Nev., probably seems like an unlikely figure to have taken up the cause of diversity. However members of his staff say that the senator is completely committed to increasing the number of minorities working in Senate offices.

“Hiring minorities and providing them equal job opportunities has always been a high priority for Senator Reid, and when he became majority leader, he hired me and started a diversity initiative for the Senate office staffs,” said Martina Bradford, senior adviser for human resources for the Senate majority leader.

The mission of Bradford’s job, and the diversity initiative, is to help Senate Democrats build more diverse staffs. Nkenge Harmon, a spokesperson for Reid’s office, pointed out that Bradford’s job wasn’t created because of the lack of diversity among Senate staffers. The primary goal was to help Senate offices find ways to identify talented minority candidates.

Bradford has two staff members working with her, and they promote the diversity initiative among all the Democratic senators. She says that Senate Democrats have embraced the initiative and that an increasing number of senators and their staffs have consulted her office to help them find minority candidates.

“The Senate offices are very interested in increasing their pool of job candidates and finding new sources for recruiting and hiring staff that they have traditionally not tapped into,” Bradford said. “And we’ve been able to identify some great candidates and point them in the right direction.”

Bradford says that in many cases the senators and staffers doing the hiring for their offices didn’t have any idea where to start looking or how to go about tapping into some of the sources located in the Washington, D.C., area.

Since the diversity initiative began, high-profile minority hires include Amanda Renteria, who is Hispanic and who serves as chief of staff for Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Sharon McGill, a black woman who was hired as general counsel for the Democratic Policy Committee.

Some on Capitol Hill see the diversity initiative as an encouraging development and admit that it’s overdue.

“It is about time that the congressional offices began a diversity initiative like this,” said John Palguta, vice president for policy for the Partnership for Public Service. “The Congress has always been notoriously slow in responding to hiring and diversity trends for the Capitol Hill staffs.”

Still, Palguta applauds the effort of the office of Reid and Pelosi and says that congressional leaders could learn a lot by looking at some of the diversity efforts and initiatives of other federal agencies.

“The rest of the federal government had made tremendous improvements in both attracting and retaining minorities. I think there are some good opportunities for the congressional offices to learn from what the rest of the federal government is doing,” he said.

SHRM Support Is Sought

Reid’s and Pelosi’s offices have consulted with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) on ways to improve and strengthen their diversity initiatives. Shirley A. Davis, Ph.D., director of diversity and inclusion initiatives for SHRM, has met with Bradford in Reid’s office and with Sidney Jones, who works for Pelosi.

Davis said that staffers in both offices were interested in improving their diversity initiatives and learning what help and guidance SHRM could offer.

“They are definitely several years behind the private sector when it comes to promoting diversity initiatives and focusing on hiring, training and promoting minorities,” Davis said. “But it is extremely encouraging that they are making this effort.”

The array of resources for diversity training and hiring programs that SHRM has to offer should be very helpful to the congressional offices, Davis says.

“They were very interested in the resources and support that SHRM can provide because it can save them a lot of work, and in many cases they can adapt existing diversity models and programs and won’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she said.

According to Davis, both offices are committed to the diversity initiatives.

“Right now, I’d say the House side may be a bit more formalized and structured in their diversity program, but both houses of Congress are certainly making a concerted effort, and we’re looking forward to working with them,” she said.

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM Online.

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