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Why CIA Struggles to Hire and Retain Minority Officers

on July 15 | in CIA

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The Central Intelligence Agency has a problem recruiting minorities and advancing them into senior leadership positions, ambulance CIA Director John Brennan admitted last month. “There have been impediments,” Brennan told reporters, “to minority officers being able to rise in the organization.”

As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.

My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.

One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.

But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.

Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.

It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:

The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]

In its survey of Agency employees, the Diversity Leadership Study found that 25% of minority respondents agreed there were aspects of their identity they needed to hide to be successful at CIA, compared to 15.5% of non-minority respondents. (The percentages for LGBT and disabled individuals are even higher, at 34 and 29 percent respectively.)

About 2% of the respondents to the diversity survey (which garnered a healthy 41.5% overall response rate from Agency officers) were of South Asian or Middle Eastern/Arab heritage. There were no specific findings associated with individuals from these ethnic backgrounds, but when I was at the Agency I wondered whether they were subject to slurs or felt any particularly acute pressure to keep a low profile. This quote from an unidentified focus group participant is perhaps telling:

“There’s robust paranoia about where people [Agency officers] come from, their loyalty to the US, and whether they would turn on us.”

This insidious pressure to conform will be difficult to change at CIA, but a more immediate challenge looms — increasing minority recruitment. The level of minority recruitment at the Agency is currently insufficient to maintain even today’s inadequate minority levels in the workforce, according to the Diversity Leadership Study.

As a senior officer at CIA, I visited college campuses several times a year and observed in action the many impediments to bringing qualified applicants on board. Here are three that I confronted quite regularly:

  • A security process that treats having non-American friends and traveling to other countries as questionable, if not potentially dangerous, behavior. My impression is the assumptions behind the security process have gone unchallenged for decades. Perhaps in the 1950s, foreign travel and friends were unusual. Today they are common experiences for most college students. But unlike Americans whose families have long lived in the US, minority applicants, such as Latinos, are more likely to still have relatives overseas. I’d suggest the Agency also look at the training and diversity of its security investigators and polygraphers to make sure they understand the interplay between cultural backgrounds and the security process.
  • Stringent academic requirements that penalize students who have to work their way through school. Most Agency recruiters look for students with sterling grade point averages. But if you’re a minority candidate, perhaps the first person in your family to go to college, chances are higher you had to scramble to pay for your education. That’s why I always checked to see whether an applicant had a part-time job before I considered their academic record.
  • Low minority participation in academic programs favored by Agency recruiters. When visiting the international affairs/area studies programs of universities, I noticed the paucity of minority candidates. The professors explained international affairs was not a popular major among minorities. When I asked Latino and African-American students why that was the case, they told me their parents pressed them to study disciplines that would easily translate into a stable job, such as business and engineering. Agency recruiters will need to be more flexible in their overall strategies to increase minority applications.

I’m pulling for the Agency not only to become more diverse in numbers but more diverse in culture and outcomes. When I was there, CIA suffered from the same dynamic that so many other companies have—they achieve the appearance of diversity without allowing for its impact. A successful diversity initiative should result in profound organizational change, as new ideas get a fair hearing and different cultural norms are introduced, and yet we know this is rarely the case.

To succeed, CIA must treat diversity as the equal of any of its other objectives. Making diversity a performance objective for senior leaders is a start, but it’s not enough. Diversity must be discussed at corporate meetings all the time, not just at the annual or semi-annual diversity updates. And it can’t just be the Diversity Advocate who does the talking; It must be internalized as an important topic of conversation by every senior leader. Only then will CIA truly leverage America’s vast human resources and achieve the diversity of ideas it needs to meet the challenges of our increasingly complex world.

Carmen Medina is a former CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. A 32-year veteran of the Intelligence Community, Carmen is known for her expertise in intelligence analysis, strategic thinking, diversity of thought, and innovation and intrapreneurs in the public sector. Her experiences as a heretic at CIA is documented in the new book, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within.

photo: The Directors Gallery at CIA.

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2 Responses to Why CIA Struggles to Hire and Retain Minority Officers

  1. […] recently wrote on this topic for Overtaction. org. You can find the complete post here.  Highlights below. (or at least I think […]

  2. […] As former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence Carmen Medina notes, these conditions constitute barriers for employment given the demanding academic requirements set up by the […]

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