Federal survey includes question about workers’ sexual orientation

May 8, 2012

Among the things managers will learn about the federal workforce when this year’s survey of how happy employees are at their jobs is completed in June is how many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees work in the government.

This census of sexual orientation appears in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey for the first time this year, along with other new questions inviting federal workers to say whether they are disabled or have ever served on active military duty.

The answers to these and other questions will help the government get its most accurate picture to date of federal workers’ attitudes: The 2012 survey includes all permanent full- and part-time employees, about 1.8 million workers, compared with 266,000 in last year’s sample.

The government already collects demographic data on veterans and disabled employees, and the Obama administration is making a big push to increase hiring of both groups.

But the organized network of federal LGBT advocacy groups pressed for inclusion in the survey, and Personnel Chief John Berry, the Obama administration’s highest-ranking openly gay official, said the agency wants to “learn as much as we can from our employees so we can better serve them.”


Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry (R) speaks during a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Sept. 7, 2011. (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)

The questions asks federal workers whether they consider themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Although federal workers can’t share health benefits with same-sex partners and federal law does not recognize same-sex marriage, the Obama administration has chipped away at some of the biggest obstacles to equality for gay federal workers.

However, the government has no way to tell how many gay people it employs. There have been no comprehensive surveys.

“It’s percolating in the research community,” said Jonathan Foley, director of planning and policy analysis for the Office of Personnel Management, which administers the survey.

“If you don’t ask the question, you don’t know,” Foley said. “We want to know, is the satisfaction with work different for people who are LGBT?” The sexual orientation question, like the 97 others, is anonymous, and the survey voluntary.

The U.S. Census does not ask Americans for their sexual orientation. But starting in 2000, it allowed same-sex couples living together to identify themselves either as spouses or unmarried partners.

The OPM survey also asks employees for their age, gender, pay, race and ethnicity.

Advocacy groups call the sexual orientation question an obvious step for a community that is passing the torch to a generation of younger employees who are openly gay and pushing for access to more than 1,000 benefits that come with marriage.

“Part of being out at work is being willing to identify yourself on a survey,” said Marc Salans, president of DOJPride, which represents Justice Department employees. “It’s ending our invisibility within the government. We’re at a time and place in our history when more and more people are comfortable being out.”

Just 60 percent of civil servants who responded to the 2011 survey said they were satisfied with efforts to honor diversity in the workplace.

Diego Sanchez, a transgender aide to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and president of the Federal Equality Coalition, acknowledged that “not everyone will feel comfortable” disclosing their sexual identity, even anonymously. “But this will give us a benchmark.”

Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.), chairman of the House subcommittee on the federal workforce, said Tuesday that he was unaware of the new survey question and said it shouldn’t be asked.

“I think it’s a violation of privacy,” Ross said, vowing to inquire further with the personnel agency.

At least one conservative group said it finds the question odd because gays are not a class with protections under federal anti-discrimination laws.

“Why not ask the same question about religion then?” asked Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.

“If the survey doesn’t ask marital status, why is it pushing people to [say] what their sexual orientation is?” he said.“I can’t help but think this lays the groundwork for more anti-discrimination protections.”

The 2012 survey launched April 2; the deadline to complete it is the end of June. As of Friday, about 250,000 employees had responded, Foley said. The results will be publicly released in the fall.

The survey has been done every other year since 2002, although this is the first time it has been conducted two years running. Managers use the results to gauge how employees feel about their bosses and to identify problems in the workplace. The Partnership for Public Service uses the survey to compile its “Best Places to Work” rankings.

By opening the questions to about 1.8 million workers this year, managers will get more “statistically valid” results than with a smaller sample, Foley said.

Staff writer Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.

Lisa Rein covers the federal workforce and issues that concern the management of government.
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