Diverse recently sat down with Elaine Ho, who, as director of Diversity and Inclusion at the Internal Revenue Service, is charged with implementing the agency’s diversity strategies. At first glance it may appear that diversity issues would take a back seat to the heavy financial and monetary issues associated with federal taxation issues. Not so, explains Ho, whose background as an Asian American lawyer and military officer puts her in a unique position to manage diversity at the IRS.
DI: The IRS is one of the largest agencies in the world. Why is diversity important at a place like this?
Ho: If you look at IRS’ mission, it’s to provide America’s taxpayers with top-quality service, helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities. When we have that diverse population that reflects the taxpayers, we can better understand them and better serve them.
DI: What’s your biggest challenge in recruiting a diverse staff?
Ho: Honestly, I don’t think it’s that big of a challenge. If you’re looking in the right places, you find it. One of the things that I hear is “Well, I know recruiting diverse talent is important, but I can’t find that.” I find that hard to believe. The federal government has some great opportunities. As an example, we have something called a Schedule A hiring authority where we’re able to hire individuals with disabilities without having them go through the competitive process that people commonly associate with the federal process.
DI: Can you tell us more about the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion?
Ho: The office is something that was created when the executive director, Debra Chew, came on board in July of 2009. It wasn’t necessarily a reorganization, but more of a rebranding. There are sometimes negative connotations when people say “EEO,” so we chose to rebrand our office as the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to look at diversity not just in a narrow focus of looking at race and gender, but looking at diversity and inclusion as something very broad, and especially looking at diversity in terms of thought and perspective and ideas.
DI: You come from a military background. How did you end up in diversity leadership?
Ho: There’s actually a logical explanation. The Air Force paid my way through college. I was able to delay my time to go into active duty to go to law school first, so when I came into the Air Force I came in as a JAG. My first assignment was in Okinawa, Japan. I had two main responsibilities. One was being a criminal prosecutor. The other was advising senior leaders and commanders, mainly about personnel issues. You’ve got people coming in from all walks of life, putting on a uniform and coming together. There’s going to be conflict.
From there I was assigned to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., and I did a lot of the same things. So I was looking at personnel type issues, employment law type issues, issues of sexual harassment and race discrimination and gender discrimination. (When I left the Air Force) a logical transition was to continue practicing law but to specialize in employment law. I joined a large firm in the area and had a really great experience as an employment attorney. I had a senior partner take me under his wing. He was looking to develop a diversity practice. He had been involved in class actions defending companies, and he recognized that if these companies had a robust diversity program in place they could actually prevent some of these things from happening. So we were kind of approaching it from a risk mitigation standpoint.
DI: So with all of that experience, international and domestic, what is your perspective on these different approaches to diversity?
Ho: I feel like I’m spoiled living here in D.C. Really, we are fortunate to be in such a diverse city. But having lived in other parts of the country, it’s not like that everywhere. I think there’s very much the concept that diversity is just about race issues, and that kind of pricks this “us vs. them” mentality. I need to remember that in having -conversations about diversity, that people will get there. You’ll have to meet them where they’re at, and they’ll get there.
You look around at the changes that are happening in our country and globally. I mean, it’s really happening. If you don’t think that things are changing, then you’ve got your head in the sand. There are radical changes, whether in demographics or otherwise, that are happening with our country and happening globally. People will come to terms with it in their own way over time, whether they’re pushed along by others or whether they come to it themselves.
DI: If you recall former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s statement that there would be no need for affirmative action in 25 years, how do you assess that timetable?
Ho: Looking at how affirmative action came about, it pertains really to the issue of representation. As we’ve evolved, representation is still an issue, but it’s not the issue anymore. It only gets us to a certain point. Really, if companies are going to be successful, they need to see it’s not just about diversity of race or diversity of gender. It’s the diversity of thought and the diversity of ideas that come with this diversity of identity.