Dispatch from the middle of the pack: EPA struggles with morale and ‘green ceiling’

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy analyzes her agency's poor showing on the list of "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government."

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy admits she hears grumblings among employees these days. The agency ranks at 16 out of 19 large agencies in the 2014 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government, released earlier this week by the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte.

McCarthy attributed employees’ glumness to their mounting workloads amid budget cuts and furloughs, but she said things were turning around.

“We are down some employees but we’re hiring for the first time,” she said, calling the agency’s recent hiring freeze “the worst thing for morale because we were not able to hire in critical places.”

Acknowledging that EPA staffers are concerned about their mounting workloads, McCarthy said the most important thing that could do was set priorities.

“We have cross-agency initiatives that we’ve identified, and people have action plans. We’re organizing our work so there’s a better team approach, and we’re trying to make sure that people have what they need to succeed,” she said.

McCarthy spoke after making brief remarks to advocates for greater diversity at environmental organizations, including government agencies at all levels. The event’s host, a coalition dubbed Green 2.0, recently commissioned a study of nearly 300 large environmental nonprofits, agencies and foundations. It could not find any in which more than a sixth of the workforce were people of color.

In contrast, the EPA is 67 percent white, according to the most recent statistics from the Office of Personnel Management, although McCarthy said the agency was trying to do better.

“We have our arms tied behind our backs if we don’t have a more diverse workforce,” she said, adding that the EPA needs to understand the concerns of all communities impacted by its work.

But the agency has had its share of discrimination issues. Just a few years ago, the agency’s Office of Civil Rights was considered so poor that then- Administrator Lisa Jackson commissioned an outside review by Deloitte in 2011. The consultants accused the office of being so riddled with leadership problems that it tended to focus on heritage events rather than discrimination cases brought by EPA employees and outside communities of color. The review also found a backlog of cases stretching back a decade.

That office now has a permanent director. The EPA is trying to build a model civil rights program, according to an agency official.

With the lift of the hiring freeze, the EPA has changed the way it recruits and considers employees for leadership opportunities, McCarthy said.

“We have a lot of people who are retiring and a lot of new blood coming in. We’re working on ways to support that,” she said. She would not comment, however, when asked whether the EPA would offer buyouts as it has in the past.

Rather, the agency has created a list of more than 300 schools and organizations that now receive job announcements, an agency official said. When hiring for senior positions, the agency plans to pull together panels of employees from diverse backgrounds to interview the candidates.

It is training its managers “so that when we’re choosing people, everybody is on equal footing and we can get folks into the system,” she said.

That includes educating managers to recognize their own unconscious bias, which the Green 2.0 study found to be pervasive throughout mainstream environmental groups. So far, 88 percent of EPA managers have participated, said Gwen Keyes Fleming, chief of staff to the administrator.

The EPA also has established a diversity and inclusion council of employees who meet quarterly and make recommendations to agency leaders.

“This is not an overnight thing, but there is a strong commitment to this,” said McCarthy. “We have plans. We’re looking at it. We’re tracking it. And we’ll do the best we can to make sure the EPA reflects the full range of voices that we want to hear.”


2014 Best Places to Work list reflects feds’ sagging morale

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