Gay? Transgender? U.S. Government Wants to Know

By Bill Leonard Jun 8, 2012
For the first time ever, the U.S. government is gathering data about the sexual orientation and gender identity of its workforce through the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS).

The intent, according to officials with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), is to get the most accurate picture ever of federal employees’ attitudes and perceptions about their workplaces.

The EVS, which is anonymous, includes voluntary census questions that will give federal employees the opportunity to indicate if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

In addition, the survey includes new questions about the veteran and disability status of employees.

“For the same reason that we ask other demographic questions, researchers and analysts want to understand if the answers differ based on LGBT status or veteran status or disability status,” said Jon Foley, associate director of planning and policy analysis for OPM. “The new demographic questions give us a greater ability to use the survey as a management tool.

“The survey can only go so far to indicate trends in certain areas,” he noted. “It doesn’t replace performance appraisals and performance management, but it can give leaders and managers some indication of where workplace issues might lie.”

An Inclusive Workplace Is the Goal

According to Foley, the decision to include the new questions was not a response to pressure from an employee or advocacy group. Instead, the demographic questions are part of the Obama administration’s efforts to make the federal government workplace more inclusive and to understand the needs of its workers better.

Employee advocacy groups have applauded the OPM’s decision to include the questions. Sources interviewed for this article said the federal government was setting a great example for other employers in the private and public sectors by gathering this kind of data.

“If you don’t measure something, then you certainly can’t manage it,” said J. Kevin Jones, deputy director of Out and Equal Workplace Advocates, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that represents gay and transgender people. “We welcome efforts like this, because it’s the best way to get good, relevant data and understand the workplace attitudes and perceptions of LGBT employees.”

Some advocacy groups for military veterans and people with disabilities agree with Jones and said that the data gathered in the survey will prove invaluable in getting a clearer picture of federal workers.

“It really is in the best interest of all employers and their employees to get the most accurate information possible,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy for the Partnership for Public Service in Washington, D.C., a group dedicated to helping the federal government recruit and hire a highly qualified workforce.

Palguta said he has worked with OPM for several years to develop questions for the EVS. Data gathered from the survey is used by the partnership to compile a list of the best places to work in the federal government. Because the demographic questions are voluntary and anonymous, no one interviewed for this article saw any risk to employee privacy.

Reactions to the Modified Survey

“I believe all federal employees responding to this survey know that these questions are completely voluntary and understand that their anonymity and privacy are protected,” Palguta said. “So the reaction to these new questions has been very muted. I really have heard no feedback, positive or negative, on these new demographic questions. It’s been very quiet out there.”

Questions about the survey posted on a social media site for government employees drew no response.

Several news articles about the modified survey generated modest feedback from readers, some of whom complained online (anonymously) that the government was overstepping its bounds by asking these kinds of questions.

Advocates for the data collection pointed out that the survey is not a federal government attempt to identify citizens’ sexual orientations or gender identities but an effort by a large employer to gather better information about its workforce.

“Employers collect demographic information about their employees all the time,” said Jones. “Businesses need this information to help them determine what type of benefits and time-off policies they should offer.”

Breaking New Ground

According to Jones, the federal government is something of a trendsetter in gathering the LGBT demographic information. However, there are more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies that collect similar data from their workforces, he said.

“Many of these companies have very progressive and inclusive policies for their LGBT employees because they understand the value of attracting the best qualified workers and eliminating barriers that could exclude some workers,” Jones said.

The results of the survey could prove useful to employers in the public and private sectors.

“It should provide some excellent data and give us a much better picture of the workplace concerns of employees who are part of groups that we just don’t have a lot of data on right now,” Palguta said. “It will be interesting to see the reports on the survey once all the statistical analysis is complete.”

The OPM began distributing the surveys to 1.8 million federal employees in early April 2012. OPM officials hope to have the survey process completed by the end of June 2012. “Some agencies really promote and push the survey; typically their response rates are very good,” Palguta said.

This is the first time that the survey was sent to all 1.8 million employees in the executive branch of the federal government, who fall under the HR policies of the OPM. In 2011, the OPM sent the survey to 500,000 randomly selected federal employees.

“The availability of demographic data allow agencies and OPM to analyze variances in perception and practice across different subsets of employees that offer opportunities or flag issues that may need attention,” said the OPM’s Foley. “Analysts can determine if the respondents who are LGBT or disabled have statistically significant different responses to survey questions compared to the average respondents from other demographic categories.”

The massive amount of data collected by the EVS will take several weeks of analysis and review, according to Foley. The results of the survey could be available to the public in October or November 2012.

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Are Your Employees Comfortable Disclosing Disability? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, January 2012

Acceptance of Homosexuality Increasing, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, June 2011

Do You Know Who Your Employees Are? SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, November 2010

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