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Let’s Talk: Holding Difficult Conversations on Diversity

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
July 25, 2020

For months, the news cycle has been filled with stories of social, racial and economic inequity. These issues are not new—having evolved over years—sometimes centuries—influenced by numerous factors. Public agencies seek to provide services in a professional, unbiased and effective manner for the entire community. To do this, they must consider and attempt to address perceptions of inequity within the community, as well as within their own agencies. This requires holding difficult conversations on sensitive, value-laden topics inside and outside the organization, and not everyone is prepared to do this.

From a conceptual perspective, few would argue the necessity to discuss issues in an open manner. The literature on leadership, policy and human resource management emphasizes the importance of such conversations to arrive at solutions which meet the needs and expectations of all. However, the reality is that many will be uncomfortable dealing with sensitive issues such as diversity, inclusiveness or inequity. It is not so much disagreement with these concepts, but rather that they are removed from their comfort zones. It might be helpful to consider this in relation to past experiences in working with the United States’ fire services on diversity within the discipline.

Example: The United States Fire Services

We can consider the United States’ fire services. I use the term “services” deliberately, because this is not a single entity, as is the rule for local and state agencies. The National Fire Protection Association reported there were 29,705 fire departments in the United States in 2018. Of these, 18% were career or mostly career, with the remainder being volunteer organizations. These career departments served 68% of the population.

As illustrated in the table below, the career workforce is not reflective of the population served. This is evident despite decades of formal and informal efforts to create a more diverse, more inclusive workforce. Despite improvement, progress has been slow and incremental, falling far short of stated diversity goals. An effective remedy eludes these services. To address this, it is critical to speak about these issues, but this might be more challenging than imagined.

2019 Diversity in the United States Fire Services

US Population

US Fire Services (Career)

African-American: 13.4%

Asian-American: 5.9%

Female: 50.8 %

Hispanic-Latino: 18.5%

Male: 49.2%

White: 60.4%

African-American: 8.5%

Asian-American: 1.3%

Female: 3.1%

Hispanic-Latino: 11.6%

Male: 96.9%

White: 86.7%

Source: US Census Bureau

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Note: There was no available, reliable data on LGBTQ for the fire services.

Difficult Conversations: Mechanical vs. Cultural

In years past, when discussing these issues in fire service settings, it was not uncommon for the group to fall silent when seeing the hard data. In most instances, the discomfort level in the room arose notably. Participants avoided eye contact, they fidgeted in their seats, they focused on their smartphones—anything to avoid engaging. When someone spoke, we heard rejections of the argument, stating the data was inaccurate or that it did not reflect their particular agency. If someone spoke to agree with the data, they were often silenced. The arguments tended to shift to discussion of the mechanics of recruitment, hiring, laws and policies and providing a “safe space.” Discussions avoided the more sensitive conversational ground concerning the influences of formal and informal organizational cultures on recruitment and retention of women and minorities in the fire services.

To address a sensitive issue, it is necessary to discuss it. Public sector leaders who cannot discuss such issues openly will find they are unable to create meaningful change. If they

cannot engage in difficult conversations within their own agency, it is improbable they will be capable of having such conversations with the community. Whatever the sensitive topic, if this is the case, the needs and expectations of the group will be unheard, concerns will be unaddressed and any opportunity for mutual trust, respect and support shall be lost. Public sector leaders must learn to create and sustain these difficult conversations, regardless of the internal, emotional turmoil it might create in participants.

Recommendations for Public Sector Leaders

  • Determine to hold these discussions—their value cannot be understated.
  • Prepare—these discussions must not be entered carelessly.
  • Accept the sensitivity of many topics—expect there to be emotional reactions.
  • Focus on issues, not individuals, personalities or relationships.
  • Do not dismiss the past experiences of anyone. Accept that their experiences and perceptions may differ from yours. It is important that you respect the validity of their experiences and perceptions; if you dismiss their views, you disrespect the people.
  • Facilitate open discussions. Do not let anyone dominate the conversation, nor to sit quietly with their views unheard.
  • Pace the conversation, letting emotions cool, as necessary.
  • If you are intimately involved, consider the use of an external facilitator.


There is no intent to impugn the United States’ fire services in this article. It was simply an example to provide context. The same concerns are unquestionably found in other public sector disciplines across the nation. The intent is to stress the importance of being capable of discussing sensitive issues in an open, objective and professional manner. Social, racial and economic inequity are sensitive issues, and there will be other sensitive issues facing any agency. If you cover a wound, but do not treat it, it will fester, creating new problems—sometimes more serious ones. If you fail to discuss sensitive issues tied to inequities, the inequities will worsen. This will create turmoil in the community, which will negatively affect the ability of public administrators to support a high quality of life for their communities. If anyone is left out, we all lose.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.), EFO, is a member of Capella University’s public administration core faculty. Prior to this, he served in local government for over three decades, primarily in career and volunteer fire/EMS organizations. He is the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA, and may be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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