Workforce Equity Strategic Plan Annual Report finds success in Countywide investments

October 18, 2022

County leaders on Thursday, Oct. 13, presented the annual report of the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, focusing on changes in Central Human Resources, improvements to the County’s Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations process, and the first set of findings from a new exit interview pilot program.  

(Left to right) Joy Fowler, Multnomah County’s chief diversity and equity officer, Tammorra Barrnes with Managers of Color Employee Resource Group, and Neisha Saxena, Office of Diversity and Equity deputy director and civil rights administrator

The Workforce Equity Strategic Plan, also known as WESP, was officially adopted by the Board of Commissioners in April 2018 to address employment barriers, inequities, and historical County cultural practices that negatively impact employees of color and other marginalized groups. The plan, which the Board amended in January 2019, requires officials to regularly report back to commissioners on progress and efforts for moving forward. 

The Office of Diversity and Equity (ODE), along with Central Human Resources and Chair Deborah Kafoury’s Office, began the presentation with a video that recounted several employees’ direct experiences working at the County as a person of color and as members of other marginalized communities. 

“The voice of employees continues to be essential to the success of the WESP and our ability to create a workplace of safety, trust and belonging,” said Joy Fowler, the County’s chief diversity and equity officer, joined by Kimberly Melton, Chair Kafoury’s chief of staff. 

To date, they said, the County has successfully moved toward delivering on the promise of the WESP, creating new teams and structures, and reorganizing County work to meet the standards set by the plan. 

Thanks to new and expanded investments approved by the Board, the County has  staff  to support the plan and formed new teams.  That includes creating the Complaints and Investigations Unit (employee login credentials required), adding Equity Managers in all departments, expanding the Office of Diversity and Equity’s civil rights unit, and adding a tribal liaison. 

The Board maintained those investments even amid revenue shortfalls and uncertainty during the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Slide taken from the presentation

The call for new teams in the Complaints and Investigation Unit added a total of 6 full-time employees. 

“Together, these investments have developed a unique and innovative equity infrastructure that has increased our capacity to realize the County’s vision for workforce equity,” said Alejandro Juarez, workforce equity manager in the Office of Diversity and Equity.

Countywide reorganization in Central Human Resources 

The WESP included new commitments in Central Human Resources, including the restructuring of the office’s Talent and Development and Talent Acquisition efforts, along with changes in staffing and new minimum standards.

Human Resources has since reorganized Talent Development and Talent Acquisition into four coordinated teams, each with identified roles and responsibilities: 

  • Talent Acquisition 
    • Recruitment 
    • Onboarding 
    • Programming to support new employees
    • Career development 
  • Organizational Learning 
    • Leadership 
    • Equity 
    • Conflict resolution 
  • Organizational Change
    • Project/change management 
    • Technology learning 
    • Manager/HR training 
    • Future of Work
    • Communications 
  • Wellness
    • Employee Assistance Program  
    • Wellness programming 
    • Work/life balance

“I can easily say that the WESP has changed Central HR,” said Chris Lenn, Central Human Resources director, noting the four new teams are meant to serve as leaders and countywide resources in their areas.

Along with successfully restructuring, Central HR also achieved the following objectives for 2022 as laid out in the WESP: 

  • Disability accommodations training for HR and managers 
  • Manager training 
  • Career profiles 
  • Expanded relationships with community-based organizations 
  • Launching a College to County mentorship program

The Office of Diversity and Equity joined the Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Oct. 13 to present the annual report of the Workforce Equity Strategic Plan

Countywide ADA Accommodations and Disability Equity

Ashley Carroll, disability resource specialist for the Office of Diversity and Equity, described updates to the ADA accommodation process. 

Those improvements started with findings from a report led by the Including Disability in Equity and Access (IDEA) Employee Resource Group. The report identified inconsistencies within the accommodation process and the need for improvement in how accommodations are tracked. With those findings in hand, Carroll met with staff from each department’s human resources team to compare them with the accommodations processes they already had in place.

“It was consistent with the IDEA report,” said Carroll. “We had to streamline, and we had a lot of work to do.”

In June 2021, the County formed an Employee Accommodation Workgroup, made up of department-based human resources staff, Employee Resource Group representatives, and staff from the Complaints Investigation Unit, the Office of Diversity and Equity, Labor Relations, and Central Human Resources. 

The workgroup brought forward several changes and additions to the ADA process: 

  • Updated accommodation forms
  • Creating a common landing page for employee informational materials
  • Updated disability tracking in Workday, and a central place for Human Resources staff to enter employees’ disability information/status
  • New trauma-informed Human Resources email templates to help staff when communicating with employees who request accommodations 
  • New training for Human Resources that will be delivered twice a year
  • Accessibility guidelines for event planning, including tips on how to plan virtual and/or in-person meetings that are accessible to all. 

Countywide Exit Interview Pilot 

Neisha Saxena, the Office of Diversity and Equity’s deputy director and civil rights administrator, explained a pilot program launched in 2020 as part of the WESP’s Focus Area 5.

The program, which continued through March 2022, offered exit interviews to a select group of departing employees in hopes of learning more about their experiences and challenges, so those experiences could, in turn, help shape policy changes . 

“The purpose was to provide a trusted venue,” said Saxena, who let interviewees see the questions beforehand and then review their responses after an interview as needed. 

In total, Saxena interviewed seven department directors or deputy managers, five middle managers and seven equity practitioners, who surfaced some recurring themes: 

  • Interviewees left the County for higher-level positions
  • Executive level transitions had impacts across the organization
  • High level of turnover in equity-focused leadership roles
  • Pandemic-related burnout from managing crisis response
  • Importance of supportive supervision at both manager and director levels
  • Uncertain nature of leaders serving in interim roles during pandemic
  • Unique pressures on managers of color
    • more closely scrutinized
    • underestimated
    • expected to carry the weight of operationalizing the County’s racial equity initiatives
  • Women of color experienced more “push back” from staff and less support from more senior leaders
  • Cisgender male managers described their gender as an advantage in leadership
  • Desire for more collaboration with labor unions; concern about  “us vs. them” dynamic toward managers
  • Challenges of decentralized organizational structure, structural barriers to collaboration across teams. 
  • Desire for more central support for WESP
    • communications, tools
    • operational support, and 
    • better centralized coordination across the organization

The Board of Commissioners reflect on this work

Commissioner Sharon Meieran shared her appreciation for the County leaders working to integrate the WESP into their practices. “I think we have the right people at the right time,” she said. 

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal acknowledged the workers who were at the root of how the WESP came to be. “My deepest thanks to the employees who spoke out, stepped up and were so courageous in bringing their truths forward,” she said. 

“They’re tough for a reason,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said about the conversations and issues that have emerged from the WESP, “because they’re important.”

“While I know I have talked to a lot of employees that feel we have a long way to go,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann, “we have made significant strides.” 

Chair Kafoury acknowledged the progress the County has made, even as more work remains “No one can say that we put our commitment to the WESP aside,” she said. “It’s been front and center all along.” 

Melton, the Chair’s chief of staff, said “the path can seem opaque,” noting the challenges the County has faced with the WESP. But she said, even when “the guiding light can seem far in the distance, we continue to move forward.” 

“Because we know this matters for us as individuals, as a community, and we’re a system  of leaders for this region around the work of workforce equity and we do not take that lightly.”

Sheriff’s Office, Joint Office of Homeless Services present progress

The ODE staff returned to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Oct. 18, for a second briefing on the WESP.  The second presentation focused on departmental initiatives, the WESP renewal process and the impact of the work on the ground, specifically in the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and Joint Office of Homeless Services. 

The ODE staff returned to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Oct. 18, for a second briefing on the WESP. The second presentation focused on departmental initiatives, the WESP renewal process and the impact of the work on the ground.

Each department has a unique culture and unique way of engaging equity in their work and focus areas, said Juarez.

“Through their journey, we have created potential solutions to these and other questions,” he said.   

The Sheriff’s Office, as an example, established an equity committee, created in a law enforcement environment and, during challenging circumstances, to diversify recruitment.  

Work on the WESP began in 2020 for the Sheriff’s Office, said Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Equity and Inclusion Manager Rebecca Sánchez. 

“The WESP was virtually unknown to our members and past diversity, equity and inclusion training and initiatives had left most participants feeling hurt, confused and unseen,” she said. 

The agency has worked to ensure diversity, equity and inclusion were reflected in its mission, vision and values statements, aligning its own strategic plans with the WESP. 

“We set expectations for public safety work to be informed” by diversity, equity and inclusion, said Sánchez. 

“And specifically for leadership to be champions for this work within their teams and ensuring accountability by dedicating time and resources to equity work.”

The Sheriff’s Office built infrastructure to support ongoing work, including her equity manager position, which reports directly to the Sheriff, and an Equity and Inclusion Unit positioned at the top-level of the organizational chart. 

Today, the unit’s three full-time positions support workforce equity, wellness and retention efforts. 

“This unit builds capacity for us to support our agency’s commitment not only to the minimum standards of the WESP, but the spirit of the WESP,” she said. “There’s an expectation among members that equity work is everyone’s work.” 

All new members receive training on the agency’s commitment to building diversity, equity and inclusion D.E.I. that articulates why and how the Sheriff’s Office participates in this work. The agency’s Equity and Inclusion Committee also received MCSO-specific equity lens training from the County’s Organizational Learning team. Sánchez also noted that the committee is working closely with the Sheriff’s Office’s policy advisor to ensure that these values are represented at the table from the start of policy development. 

“The ongoing relationship building with the WESP and the Sheriff’s Office is empowering our members to embrace (diversity, equity and inclusion) concepts in their work every day,” said Sánchez.

“Our leadership team at the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for cultivating and upholding a workplace environment that’s welcoming for all,” Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese said. “We recognize our employees are our greatest asset and their equitable inclusion best positions MCSO into achieving our agency goals.”

Joint Office of Homeless Services: Equity ‘foundational to our work’

The Joint Office of Homeless Services opened its presentation Oct. 18 by restating its core commitment to advance equity and inclusion — not only within the department but also across the community, through the neighbors it reaches and through the shelter, housing assistance and street outreach it funds.

Joshua Bates, the Joint Office’s deputy director, said that commitment has guided the growing department since its launch as a small office in 2016. It reflects the reality that homelessness disproportionately affects different communities.

The Joint Office believes its focus on equity “will allow us to more effectively serve all communities,” Bates said. 

“When we say we’re committed to inclusion, we foster within our office and within the community a culture of safety and belonging that ensures the voices of people who have been historically excluded — including people of color, people with disabilities and the LGBTQIA2+ community — are truly heard and shape the direction of our work.”

To meet that commitment internally, the Joint Office created an equity team, including an equity manager who serves as part of the department’s executive leadership group. Additionally, since this summer, the Joint Office has designed and begun using a racial equity lens to guide its work. 

The Joint Office also supports an equity steering committee that serves as its WESP committee — holding work sessions and learning opportunities for staff, and pushing for improved onboarding and training for staff, and equity-focused hiring and recruitment practices. Bates said the committee includes members from every team in the department. 

“This committee has been chartered to ensure that all members are ambassadors for the work,” Bates said. 

Bates and Siniva Bennett, the Joint Office’s equity manager, explained how that internal commitment positions the Joint Office to serve as a champion for equity out in the community. 

Staff share the equity training materials they develop with the providers they fund and with other community organizations. The Joint Office also took a leadership role, along with Clackamas and Washington counties, in work to remove barriers in contracting and purchasing that made it more difficult for culturally specific organizations to participate in the work of ending homelessness. 

Bennett said the changes bloomed from extensive engagement with those organizations — work that forged new relationships and brought several new provider partners into the fold across the region.

And later this year, Bennett said, the Joint Office will launch a pair of community advisory bodies to continue those community relationships and allow for additional engagement.

The Joint Office’s Equity Advisory Committee and Lived Experience Advisory Community will both provide “recommendations on how to continue to innovate and implement equity across our work,” Bennett said. 

“As we continue to work toward solutions to reduce and end homelessness in our community, equity will be foundational to our work,” Bates said. “Our community is fundamentally diverse, and we can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Representatives of the Multnomah County Employees of Color and Managers of Color employee resource groups (ERG) also addressed the Board, expressing frustration and concern that transformational changes to the organization's culture and systems were slow coming despite the Countywide work to implement the WESP. In the meantime, they said, employees of color were continuing to experience harm.

Among the shortcomings were a lack of speed and communication around specific goals and the need to better support employees and managers of color who still experience racism and microaggressions. Larry Turner, the chair of the Employees of Color ERG, said more action and information are needed, about how job descriptions lead with race, how the LEAP model data is shared and the low use of the 360 review tool for managers. Dr. Carlos Richard, who chairs the Managers of Color ERG, said managers of color are in a difficult position of experiencing racism and microaggressions even as they lead and work to change that for their employees. He urged the Board to hear from more managers of color directly.

Larry Turner, the chair of the Employees of Color ERG, said more action and information are needed, about how job descriptions lead with race, how the LEAP model data is shared and the low use of the 360 review tool for managers. Dr. Carlos Richard, who chairs the Managers of Color ERG, said managers of color are in a difficult position of experiencing racism and microaggressions even as they lead and work to change that for their employees. He urged the Board to hear from more managers of color directly.

Watch their full remarks here

Chair Kafoury joined the commissioners in acknowledging that there is more to do to achieve the County’s Workforce Equity goals, saying "I know we’re not done, I hear you and the work that we have done, while it doesn’t feel so great all the time, it is making concrete steps forward." 

But the Chair also paused to thank the presenters, the Office of Diversity and Equity, all the equity leaders around the County and in particular, her Chief of Staff Kim Melton, who has led the investments and Countywide WESP efforts the last five years.

"I want to take something to heart that Dr. Richard said today — that we need to support our leaders of color. So I am going to support the leaders of color who worked on this plan and are continuing to work on this," she said. "I am with you. I appreciate you and know you are as committed to this work as any employee at Multnomah County.”

Multnomah County’s WESP can be found on the Office of Diversity and Equity’s “Safety, Trust and Belonging” webpage.