1)	Penny Postoak Ferguson pictured with a class from Johnson County Project SEARCH, an education and employment program for people with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities 18 years of age or older who are interested in community employment.
County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson with a class from Johnson County Project SEARCH, an education and employment program.

Located in Northeast Kansas, Johnson County Government strives to foster a workplace and a community where everyone has equal opportunities, no matter their age, gender, race, religion, or sexual identity. This philosophy strongly emerges as one of our organization’s five behavioral values.

Respect: We actively recognize the dignity and worth of every individual, extending to them kindness and courtesy. We listen and seek to understand intolerance, seeking acceptance and inclusion for all.

How We Found Our VIBE

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts had been taking place within our organization for several years, but were more formalized in 2020, shortly after the killing of George Floyd. That summer, the assistant managers and I conducted 30 listening sessions throughout our departments. We had widespread participation from our workforce and heard the experiences of Black employees, along with others. This meaningful input helped us on our path to continue to ensure the equitable and fair treatment of our staff and residents.

The listening sessions overwhelmingly confirmed that the issues within our organization are deep-rooted and complex. While teams had worked on DEIB issues prior to the listening sessions, these sessions elevated our plans to create a 15-member diversity and inclusion team made up of employees to focus on DEIB education, communications, and more. Today, that team is called the Voices of Inclusion, Belonging, and Equity (VIBE) Advisory Team and our efforts to make a workplace inclusive of everyone are referred to as “VIBE.”

“The mission of VIBE is to increase and maintain a diverse and inclusive workplace of belonging through innovative strategies and equitable practices,” said Kendra Neal, DEIB program manager for Johnson County Government. “Our VIBE efforts focus on the work environment, the talent pipeline, our services, and our community.”

VIBE Accomplishments Benefiting Our Workforce

Regarding our culture, the employees driving our VIBE efforts have worked on employee identification options. They led the way in allowing employees to identify themselves as non-binary in our employee benefits and payroll system, as well as use their preferred pronouns in their email signatures and request a pronoun pin or sticker if they want. All of that is optional.

VIBE has led to many types of training and learning opportunities. DEIB training has been woven into our Supervisor Training Institute. In addition, our employees have access to self-paced learning resources, webinars, a program we call “Learning Labs,” a video library, and book recommendations. Topics range from disability inclusion to histories of those who experienced persecution or discrimination to challenging assumptions and bias, and so much more.

Through the VIBE effort and under the VIBE brand, employees post weekly stories on our intranet and in our employee e-newsletter. These personal stories could be about a holiday, a day of note, or a cultural custom, and they open the door for employees to share their histories, experiences, and perspectives with their colleagues.

Johnson County Government employees have a one-stop shop to find all of these resources and more. The VIBE Hub on our employee intranet is well branded, easy to navigate, and highly engaging.

Spreading the VIBE Outside Our Organization

Our VIBE efforts are spreading beyond the walls of our organization in many ways. VIBE leads the way in recommending and helping to plan meaningful proclamations at our board of county commissioners meetings as a way to honor a holiday or celebrate a cultural group. These proclamations are accepted in person by community members, employees, or both, and serve as opportunities for us to honor, learn about, and celebrate each other. In addition, the VIBE Advisory Team plays a major role in planning our annual Juneteenth celebration that invites our community to enjoy music, art, education, and speeches, as well as an opportunity to engage with our programs and services.

Moving forward, the VIBE efforts will continue to grow externally. In developing new board priorities in spring 2023, our board established a priority that focuses on a safe and healthy community through the lens of sustainability and DEIB to promote a healthier environment and create a sense of belonging and connection throughout Johnson County. Under the umbrella of that priority, the board recently created a new Diversity Equity, and Inclusion Community Coalition. This 15-member advisory board will work side by side with our VIBE Advisory Team and others in the organization to promote fair treatment and full participation of all people, including those who have historically been underrepresented or subject to discrimination because of their background, identity, or disability.

Is VIBE Working?

One of the ways we have measured VIBE’s success is with our DEIB employee survey, the first of which was conducted in summer 2022. Results included 76% of employees agreeing or strongly agreeing that they feel accepted and embraced for who they are at work, and nearly 70% said we are making progress toward greater diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

“Serving on the VIBE Advisory Team for the past three years will forever be one of the things I’m most proud of in my professional career. The work is hard, but it comes with incredible lessons about the county, our community, humanity, society, history, and yourself. The ability to effect positive change in our workplace, an interdisciplinary network that spans all parts of the county, and creating some great friendships has been transformative,” said Mary A. McMurray, Ph.D., director of Johnson County Museum.

The survey results also identified areas where we have room for improvement. Nearly 30% of participants say they have experienced bias in our organization. To help with this, human resources has enhanced existing learning opportunities and created new trainings to foster an inclusive work environment and reduce bias in our organization.

Another way to measure our VIBE efforts is from a recruitment perspective. When someone is looking at our website for career information, they will come across a Johnson County Culture section where we highlight our VIBE efforts. Whether you are applying to be a paramedic, wastewater line repair technician, mental health clinician, or librarian, just to name a few examples, you will come across our prioritization for diversity, belonging, and inclusion as early in the process as reading our job descriptions.

Mitchell Walker, HR manager of talent acquisition and development said, “When I was considering whether to apply to Johnson County, the way an organization approaches DEIB work was an important factor in my decision since it shows how an organization values its people. To that end, I asked around and found that Johnson County is a regional leader in DEIB work through their VIBE efforts. This wasn’t just words on a webpage either. I spoke with current and past employees, other local governments, and practitioners in the field. What I found was that Johnson County’s VIBE accomplishments were years ahead of their peers, and it drew me in immediately. During my interview, I got to learn more about how VIBE came to life in Johnson County, and you could see the difference it made to the people in the room. I have said it before, and I will continue to say that VIBE was a huge part of my decision to accept a position with Johnson County.”



PENNY POSTOAK FERGUSON, ICMA-CM, is county manager of Johnson County, Kansas.

Written in collaboration with Jody Hanson, Tiffany Hentschel, Kendra Neal, and Mitchell Walker

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