But It’s a Diversity Conference

Tuesday was the first day of the Multicultural Forum on Workplace Diversity, and during a preconference session on strategic workforce planning, an interesting thing happened: we barely talked about diversity at all.

At least,  we barely discussed the usual suspects. Of the various dimensions of diversity that often make an appearance, the one that cropped up most was diversity of thought, and with good reason.

After the facilitators finished outlining the trends impacting the workforce – demographics and the resulting talent mismatch, rising consumer sophistication, technological advancement and individual choice – the only reasonable conclusion is that organizations will have to think creatively about talent in order to succeed.

To optimize talent sources and find the levels of education, skill and industry-specific knowledge needed, practitioners will have to think outside the box and find out:

  • Does work have to be done in the traditional way?
  • Is there a strategy in place to attract and retain older workers and use their skills in a different way?
  • Are they considering under-tapped talent?
  • Can they move the work where the talent is? Even how work is designed will make a difference because top talent likely will not be accessible 9 to 5 at one desk.

Leaders also need to be educated about workforce planning, asking the right questions: What investments, choices and tradeoffs will create the most value? What pivotal talent pools, work models and people practices are needed to succeed? Do leaders actually know the difference between a workforce plan and a workforce strategy?

My head was spinning by the end of it, but at the reception later that day I ran into the facilitators and I asked them, why didn’t you talk more about diversity? Certainly some conversation around gender and diverse talent and how to find it filtered into the discussion, but I mentioned that it wasn’t as much as I’d anticipated.

One of the women told me, “I didn’t want to alienate anyone.” I blinked a few times in confusion, and said, “but it’s a diversity conference.”

Why would she think that leading a conversation with diversity would be or possibly could be problematic in this environment? I didn’t have to consider the answer long; the reason is obvious, and it’s one that has contributed to a lack of progress in diversity practice for decades – people often avoid subject matter that may be divisive or uncomfortable.

I understand that. It makes perfect sense. But I say, and so do experts such as Roosevelt Thomas, who has discussed the idea in his column for us, that tension is OK. When tempered with respect, tension can open the door for learning, change and acceptance.