Jun 25, 2019

Cultivating Diversity and Retaining Staff on Capitol Hill: Five Takeaways

To continue its push for modernization, Congress will need to step up its game when it comes to recruitment, retention, and diversity among staff. As it is, Congress struggles to compete with the private sector. Staff turnover on the Hill remains high: the typical staffer leaves after just 4 or 5 years, often seeking improved work-life balance, and better pay and benefits. This puts Congress at a disadvantage, and it means that we must do more to attract and retain the best talent in order to serve constituents better. Diversity and staff retention in Congress are key elements to ensure better decision-making, innovation, and effective policy. Having greater diversity and qualified, longserving staff helps avoid old pitfalls and groupthink. 

On June 20, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress held a hearing on how to increase diversity and improve retention among congressional staffers. Witnesses included Dr. Alexander Alonso, Chief Knowledge Office of the Society for Human Resource Management; Laura Liswood, author of The Loudest Duck: Moving Beyond Diversity While Embracing Differences to Achieve Success at Work; and Dr. Kwasi Mitchell, Principal and Chief Inclusion Officer of Deloitte Consulting. Here are 5 key takeaways on how Congress can promote diversity among staff members and increase retention to ultimately serve Americans better: 

  1. A centralized HR system can help—even when there are hundreds of offices

The House of Representatives operates like hundreds of individual small businesses. There is no human resources department to assist with workplace operations such as hiring. The lack of a centralized human resources office in the House makes it much more difficult for congressional offices to increase diversity and improve retention rates among staffers. Both Dr. Alonso and Liswood recommended that Congress implement a centralized human resources office to serve all offices in the House. Such a system could help individual offices identify best practices, bring in experts, and perform diversity audits. While a centralized approach does not have to mandate or control the practices of each individual office, it can serve as an additional resource to unlock each office’s potential by tracking results, facilitating discussion, and providing assistance. 

  1. Benefits hold the key to rewarding and retaining talented staff

Compensation is important, but it’s not the only way to reward and keep staff. With staff salaries capped at the member of Congress salary level and members’ limited budgets to pay staff, it’s important to find other ways to compensate them. Dr. Alexander Alonso emphasized that benefits such as alternative schedules, paid leave, remote work options, and education assistance and loan repayment can help bridge the gap left by often low staff salaries and incentivize staff to stay on the Hill. Retirement plans and health care coverage are also highly valued by staff. Liswood noted that though compensation is an important factor in an employee’s decision to stay at a job, other factors are influential. Even if staff members are paid well, Liswood said that they will leave if they aren’t able to grow and be challenged professionally, which is why a balance between these factors and compensation is needed. 

  1. Members of Congress: Want to know how to help your staff? Ask them! 

Each of the witnesses had this to say about retaining staff: it’s important to listen to them. Whether it’s asking what benefits will help them stay or probing to find out why they leave, the best way to find out what your staff needs is to ask them. A way of implementing this is to perform periodic staff assessments.  

  1. Diversity starts with recruitment  

A diverse and inclusive working environment starts with a diverse and inclusive recruitment process, and there are a few key ways to achieve that:  

  • Ensure interviewers and resume screeners reflect a diverse pool and have received unconscious bias training 
  • Practice “Bunching Theory by reviewing a group of resumes together instead of one by one 
  • Examine the criteria on which screeners evaluate applicants—evaluating based on “cultural fit,” for example, will inevitably lead to a very homogeneous office 
  • Seek employee referrals from minority groups and to pay interns in order to increase diversity among staff 
  • Exercise caution when writing and posting job descriptions, as certain words in postings may not apply to diverse applicants, leading to fewer diverse applicants and, ultimately, a less diverse staff 
  1. Mentorship, Sponsorship, Leadership

Leadership plays a key role in improving diversity in the workplace and the experience of staff. Providing professional development opportunities, including those outside of the scope of an office’s work, both increases the chances a staff member decides to stay and improves the entire office. Mentorship and sponsorship are also crucial pieces. Liswood drew an important distinction between mentorship and sponsorship and how they work to promote diversityWomen are over-mentored and under-sponsored, meaning there are plenty of people willing to teach and assist them but few who are willing to fund them, recommend them for higher positions, or take risks on their behalfIn order to ensure the success of women and minorities in the workplace, sponsorship must be a priority.  

To work effectively for all Americans, Congress needs to take steps to increase diversity among staffers and to improve staff retention in congressional offices. The 116th Congress is the most racially, ethnically, and gender diverse Congress in history, but much more remains to be done.  Modernization efforts must take place to ensure congressional staff more fully represents the American people. When a diverse and qualified staff fills the halls of Congress, the institution is more reflective and works better for the American people. Miss the hearing? Watch it here! 

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