DOINews: BLM's Tim Murphy — 'Fired Up' About Diversity

Last edited 09/05/2019

Tim Murphy, assistant director of the Bureau of Land Management's Fire and Aviation program, speaks with passion about how to use leadership to enhance organizational performance and to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.

"Recruiting is one challenge," Murphy says, "but retention is another. Both require strategic planning, follow-through, and a sustained team effort."

In a recent interview, Murphy shared some of the ways he has been working to achieve that recruitment and retention strategy. These include using diversity as a force multiplier; employing the principals of High Reliability Organizing; being flexible when hiring; empowering employees; and seeking the advice of respected leaders and new learning opportunities.

Use Diversity, Inclusion as a Force Multiplier for Achievement

Murphy says he believes that diversity and inclusiveness are critical factors in recruitment and retention and in accomplishing BLM's mission, bringing added value at a time when BLM is growing increasingly complex and its customer base is changing and growing more diverse.

More than 22 million people live within 25 miles of public lands managed by BLM. "We need to develop and position a diverse workforce within an inclusive organization," Murphy says. "It's about establishing and maintaining relevance for the citizens we serve and the employees we seek to hire."

"Diversity in all its forms is a force multiplier for achievement," Murphy says. "I was pleased to see inclusiveness is part of the BLM Diversity Web page.”

Take a Proactive Approach, Employ Principals of High Reliability Organizing

Murphy's proactive approach and his readiness to listen and respond early to small signals are closely associated with the framework of High Reliability Organizing. BLM fire employees use HRO characteristics to improve safety and business practices. Murphy says, "A diverse and inclusive workforce is a catalyst for a safe and highly effective workplace."

Flexibility, adaptive thinking, questioning conventional practices, and looking for leadership and solutions from employees at all levels of the organization are HRO practices that complement and support the establishment and maintenance of a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

BLM Director Bob Abbey has linked HRO principles to the strategies required for Fire and Aviation to prepare for the future in the face of fewer resources and growing demands that threaten mission accomplishment. The challenges, Abbey stated, "are to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future and take the steps now to recruit, train, and retain a new generation of capable and qualified fire and aviation managers and leaders.

Murphy says developing a multidimensional organization is key to BLM's preparation for that future.

"The more I work on developing and sustaining a diverse workforce," Murphy says, "the more excited I get. When you bring in people of diverse backgrounds, you go to a truly multi-dimensional organization. When everyone has a voice and meaningful influence, cool things happen."

Be Creative, Flexible When Hiring

Fire jobs bring unique hiring and retention challenges and increasingly, recruitment efforts are leading managers to a search for diverse candidates. Murphy says he has learned to be creative and flexible in his search for potential fire employees. And, like other managers in BLM, he has sought out returning veterans, multiskilled and motivated candidates with diverse backgrounds and capabilities.

The Fire and Aviation program's partnership with the Wounded Warrior Program, Murphy says, has been good for business.

While volunteering at the National Interagency Fire Center, veterans remain under the Veterans' Administration rehabilitation program and are paid by the Department of Defense. Veterans, co-workers, and supervisors have the opportunity to check each other out, Murphy says. Upon completion of their rehabilitation program, veterans can be noncompetitively hired. "A great employee joins the premier land-management agency and makes us even better, Murphy says, “hard to beat!"

Also, the Fire and Aviation program has employed veterans through the Veterans Green Corps. This partnership enables BLM to introduce veterans to natural- and cultural-resource management and contribute to a recruitment pool of prospective hires, while, at the same time, meeting the expectations of Secretary Ken Salazar and Abbey by recruiting youth and veterans.

When asked if people would be reluctant to hire veterans, particularly those with disabilities, Murphy says a disability is not an impediment. “We want the diverse experiences and capabilities that any person with any disability brings to our workplace,” he says.

Maintaining firefighting crews has its challenges, too. Employees are often away from their homes. For them, the question becomes: How can they balance work responsibilities with their home life responsibilities? "One employee might have childcare responsibilities," Murphy says, "while someone else might have elder-care. Working together, the employee and manager can develop a plan where everyone wins."

Murphy admits that when he first began his recruitment efforts, he didn't know he was being "inclusive" or valuing "diversity." He just knew he needed to recruit and retain valuable employees. His diversity outreach began with recruiting and hiring more female employees. The strategies he used transfer to any aspect of diversity.

Empower Employees

Murphy used listening to learn and understand the needs of current and prospective employees. He went to an International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services conference. There, he learned what mattered to employees, the challenges they faced trying to balance work and home life, and what it would take to build employee loyalty and thereby increase retention.

He then enlisted the assistance of the BLM Leadership Academy's Grizzly Team who turned his desire to improve retention into “The Fire Program Toolbox,” a booklet now used by employees and supervisors throughout BLM's Fire and Aviation program.

This booklet has what Murphy calls "empowerment" value for new employees, who are flooded with information on policies and benefits. Having at hand information they can use to sit down and meet with their supervisors, he says, helps them to identify solutions on how to strike a balance between work and home. In addition, the booklet encourages employees to take advantage of growth and advancement opportunities, including mentoring and cross-training, which the booklet describes and managers are encouraged to use.

Celebrate Small Wins, Seek Advice From Respected Leaders, Keep Learning

Murphy offers this advice for supervisors. "Celebrate the small wins," he says. Employees don't always expect a big show of gratitude, he he adds, but they deserve a sincere one. Murphy also encourages supervisors to hold employees accountable, to deal with problems before they reach a flashpoint, and to have fun. "Some people think our office has way too much fun," he says, but it helps build and sustain an inclusive and cohesive team.

When it comes to building leadership skills, Murphy recommends seeking out respected leaders. Engage them in conversations, study how they get things done and emulate their best practices, he says. “Establish relationships with people you might not particularly agree with," he says. "Their perspectives can show you your blind spots.”

Learning opportunities are everywhere, and Murphy's newest one was the FranklinCovey Diversity Change Agent class. The DCA program is an important part of the department and bureau diversity and inclusion initiative plan. Murphy says he sees the knowledge he has gained there as another force multiplier.

Murphy's calm demeanor belies the inner forces that drive him. He says he isn't interested in outdated thinking. Having the "right stuff" knows no color, gender, ethnic or personal preference, no particular problem-solving style or physical appearance, he says.

Murphy's willingness to look for talent in unconventional places, giving voice to everyone in the workplace, employing diverse thinking and perspectives, and getting creative in retaining valuable employees is a strategic thinking style tied to HRO characteristics.

Some might call his process a strategy for increasing diversity and inclusion in the workplace. For Murphy it is simply hiring the right people for the right jobs — and then providing the tools and opportunities to develop their potential.

More information on HRO is available at

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