City of Vancouver: Quest for better representation and workplace diversity

City attributes low percentage of female, minority employees to a limited labor pool

By Katy Sword, Columbian staff writer



Study: More diverse workforce pays off for organizations

A diverse workforce literally earns organizations more money. "In terms of the big picture, it has been proven over and over again if you have a diverse workforce -- diverse in the general sense of women, men, people of color, young, old, etc. -- you will indeed come up with better ideas and solution to problems," said Mari Watanabe, executive director of Partners in Diversity, a Portland nonprofit that helps companies recruit and retain a diverse workforce. "The return on your investment is definitely there in having a diverse workforce." A workforce that's gender diverse will outperform those lacking by 15 percent, and an ethnically diverse company will outperform others by 35 percent, according to a study by McKinsey & Company. "It's a huge, huge financial gain," Watanabe said. A study by the American Sociological Association found that a 1 percent increase in organizational diversity roughly equates to 9 percent in revenue growth. Watanabe said these findings can apply to any type of organization, including the city of Vancouver. "It's still really about solving problems and having more diverse voices at a table," she said. "You will still come out with a lot more opportunities, outcomes and ideas than you would if at the table everyone looked the same." A focus on diversity is imperative, Watanabe added. "As our community grows more and more diverse, all the more you will need to better prepare yourself for the change in our demographics," she said. The focus must come from the top down, she said. "They have to actually own it and be responsible for it," Watanabe said. "Sometimes they will say, 'Oh yeah, we want to be that way but I'm giving it to my HR practitioner to do that.' I think that's fine, they will do the work, but if it really isn't embraced by the leadership, it won't be successful." And the efforts aren't easy and certainly can't be completed overnight. "You can't do a one-time training and expect it to change. It takes a lot more work," she said. — Katy Sword

In an era where diversity is increasingly promoted, the city of Vancouver’s workforce remains disproportionately male and white, according to a Columbian analysis of city employment data.

Only 29 percent of the city’s 1,021 employees are female, compared with 48 percent of the local labor force.

And in a community that’s 71 percent white, fewer than 100 city workers — or less than 10 percent — are black, Asian or Hispanic.

The city has no black female police officers or firefighters. Instead, the majority of women are employed in clerical support positions.

City Manager Eric Holmes acknowledges the problem and vows to do better, but attributes the gender divide to the available candidate pool.

“We have to rely on the labor pool, but we have done some targeted recruitment and campaigning working with the police department for females,” Holmes said. “We can continue to work on that and grow those skills to grow greater gender diversity in the workforce.”

Ethnic diversity also seems to be a problem, if the city wants its workers to represent the community’s diversity.

In 2017, only 1.5 percent of the city’s employees were black men, which is equivalent to 15 people, according to city employment data. Male Hispanic workers make up 2 percent of the workforce, or 21 employees, and male Asian employees account for 1.3 percent of the force, equal to 13 employees. Seven other male employees are listed as diverse, with the remaining 664 male employees identifying as white.

The female workforce is similarly skewed. Only nine employees, less than 1 percent, are black women. About 1 percent of employees are Hispanic or Asian women, with 12 and 13 employees, respectively. The other 267 female employees are white.

To compare, the city of Vancouver is 71 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian, more than 4 percent multiracial and 2 percent black, according to census data. About 51 percent of the population is female.

Clark County’s total workforce is 88 percent white and 52 percent male.

Representing a community

Many argue that to be effective, an organization must represent its community in terms of diversity. Holmes agrees.

“I believe that we as an organization, as a service organization, are able to better deliver outcomes that we want and expect if we have diversity of perspectives within the organization,” he said.

The lack of diversity was the subject of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by Assistant City Attorney Debra Quinn in the fall. Quinn alleges diversity was not a priority for Holmes and the city. Among other demands, the lawsuit seeks institutional changes to reduce alleged gender discrimination and implement a focus on equity.

Holmes argued that the city already has protocols in place to ensure an equitable and non-discriminatory workplace, but he said he has heard from department heads and employees that the issue needs addressing.

“This is a notable time in this nation,” Holmes said. “So we’re living and leading through a national discourse regarding gender and harassment. I think in that context, I have heard it is more prominent in people’s minds and that prominence has directed attention to it and created a desire for there to be more organizational attention on it.”

Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said she’s aware of the issue and also acknowledges the city has a lot of work to do.

“Look how long it took for us to get the first woman mayor,” said McEnerny-Ogle, who this month became the first female mayor in Vancouver’s 160-year history. “There’s a lot more to this than just putting an application on the laundromat wall. Hopefully we can remove the barriers and we are out helping them build their resumes and giving them opportunities.”

The city council has been working on this, she added. Council members have been meeting with different groups, including the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Russian community and encouraging them to fill positions with not only the council and local boards and commissions, but the city itself.

“That’s very encouraging,” she said.

Diana Perez, director of the Washington State League of United Latin American Citizens, said LULAC members are concerned about lack of diversity at every level of government.

“We give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but there are some systemic changes that need to happen,” Perez said. “Part of that is in the hiring processes.”

While Perez said she’s aware that Vancouver is trying to address the issue, acknowledgment is only the first step.

“The second step is then laying out a plan … to move forward and to start moving the needle,” she said.

Existing protocols

Holmes said there have been a few changes to the candidate recruitment and interview process as a result of conversations between department heads.

“So that we actually focus on the competencies that identifies our pool of viable candidates,” he said.

In 2016, the city went a step further and piloted blind recruitment. Identifying information on candidate applications and materials was removed until the candidates for interviews were selected. The methodology has not been tested again.

“There’s pros and cons to that methodology,” Holmes said. “Some of the pros are you’re looking at purely skills and abilities. Cons that some people may argue, not necessarily me, are that it could hinder efforts to grow diversity. I think it depends on what article you read.”

Implementing blind recruiting is something the future human resources director will consider. At the moment, the city has appointed Julie Hannon as interim HR director. Former HR director Suzi Schwabe left the city in July.

Vancouver also requires its hiring board members to participate in interview training. Holmes said the training covers biases inherent to the interviewing process and teaches employees to assess candidates based on their skills and the demands of the position instead of how they might be perceived in the position.

The phenomenon isn’t unique to Vancouver, however. Similar cities like Everett and Bellingham also face a diversity challenge.

Clark College’s success

Clark College acknowledged the similar task at hand about three years ago. College leadership made the decision to place a focus on equitable hiring and diversity. The initiative was headlined by the hiring of Dolly England, the college’s diversity outreach manager. Since she started, faculty and staff diversity has increased 2 percentage points from 15 percent to 17 percent.

“We have 33 percent students of color, so we still have quite a bit of work to do,” England said.

But this initial effort wouldn’t be possible without complete buy-in from the college’s leadership.

“I know that there are people at the city of Vancouver trying really hard to do this work, but if they don’t have the support of leadership, they’re spinning their wheels,” she said. “Part of it is the funding — you have to put money into this for it to work.”

Clark College has implemented a medley of new approaches to hiring, training and workplace culture to increase diversity.

For example, any staff member on a hiring board, regardless of rank, is required to go through equity training.

“They need to have the same understanding of what’s equitable and what’s the law,” England said.

Job descriptions have also been tweaked to ensure unintentional discrimination isn’t occurring. Listing preferred qualifications as either a master’s degree and three years’ experience or a bachelor’s degree and five years’ experience, for example, encourages applicants who might not otherwise apply.

“Simply writing a description in a way that gets more candidates through the door eliminates those systemic barriers for people,” she said.

Since this change was implemented — in addition to recruiting in new places, posting on social media and revamping the website — the number of applicant pools considered to be diverse has increased from 46 percent to 76 percent. The pools are considered to be diverse if at least 25 percent of the applicants are nonwhite.

Loretta Capeheart, associate vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Clark College, said it’s vital that any organization have a diverse staff.

“How can you have a democracy without representation?” Capeheart said. “It’s necessary and it has to be intentional. Unless it’s intentional, unless somebody is responsible for it, it’s not going to just happen by magic.”

She recommended that the city hire a diversity officer.

In a way, that’s happening.

Diversity initiative

The city has a Diversity, Inclusion and Cultural Intelligence initiative. As part of the initiative, the city planned to hire a consultant to examine policies and make suggestions to improve. More than a year since issuing a request for proposals, Vancouver has hired a consultant. Work should begin this month.

An initial contract with a consultant was signed in April but terminated in July before any work began. Holmes said this was because after meeting with the Minnesota-based consultant, the city determined it was not a good fit.

“It became clear they were unable to deliver the work product and responsiveness we were expecting,” he said.

The city then contacted the Center for Equity and Inclusion, a Portland-based group focusing on the advancement of equity and diversity, in August. A contract was signed by the city Oct. 27, one day after The Columbian published an article about Quinn’s whistleblower complaint alleging a lack of city action toward diversity.

CEI proposed a three-year contract that begins with establishing a baseline in the next year. Years two and three will be spent integrating improvements to each department “that results in a culture that values and is committed to advancing equity, diversity and inclusion and departmental plans that institutionalize equity and inclusion into organization identity, policies and procedures,” according to the proposal.

The next month or two will be spent establishing working agreements between CEI and the city and meeting with the Vancouver Equity Team. The Equity Team is made up of 18 employees, half from the leadership team and half from employees at various organizational levels.

“We brought them together to not only advise my office on the matter but also to play a leadership role as the (leadership team) gets underway,” Holmes said.

The team formed in September 2016.

Looking toward the future, CEI will develop a three-to-five year Citywide Equity Plan which states the city’s vision for equity, diversity and inclusion as well as the departmental benchmarks with corresponding strategies to meet those goals. But these benchmarks and a real focus on improvement are still years away.

For many at the city, the process has been frustratingly slow, Holmes admitted.

“It’s taken longer than I’d hoped but this is something I want to make sure is not a flash in the pan and really is a long-term, multiyear commitment,” he added.

But he’s optimistic things will change once CEI gets to work.

“This is fresh eyes on everything,” Holmes said. “It starts with building the skills of individuals participating and developing those lenses. It’s going to be an ongoing endeavor, probably forever.”