The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic drove many companies to close open jobs and cut staff. At a time when most companies needed to figure out how to transition to a virtual environment—ensuring that employees maintained social connection and a sense of belonging—we, unfortunately, saw many diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) roles slashed. But the murder of George Floyd and countless other Black Americans fueled a nationwide reckoning with race that was felt across the corporate world and sparked a resurgence in DEI roles. In fact, Glassdoor reported that after dropping 60% at the start of the outbreak, DEI roles have since jumped a staggering 55%.
Now, months removed from the onslaught of corporate solidarity statements and new job postings, we can effectively say that companies are doing diversity wrong all over again. The vast majority of the DEI roles posted have little to no connection to strategic planning, are far removed from the C-suite or senior leadership, and are still nestled in quiet corners of HR. Essentially, companies posted the same tired roles written by the same tired consulting firms that led to limited efficacy for years.
What has become clear is that many companies still have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to addressing DEI. They’re eager to state good intentions and rest on the laurels of a donation to a relevant nonprofit organization, but demonstrate disinterest in really doing the work to build diverse teams, create an inclusive culture, and drive equity through their products and services.
So before you make your final decision about your new chief diversity officer (CDO), consider these items to build a more effective DEI function.
Move these roles out of HR
HR, people operations, employee experience, or whatever you call it is not where your DEI role should be housed. HR absolutely requires a level of subject matter expertise that should be more valued in organizations, and these functions should partner closely with CDOs. But DEI is a practice and a business function beyond talent acquisition and employee resource group program management. More often than not, HR is not as meaningfully connected with other parts of the organization, particularly on items that have to do with the actual product or service a company is providing.
Elevate and align these roles correctly
Many DEI practitioners have chronicled the lasting impacts of “diversity fatigue,” which are the feelings of exhaustion associated with all of the personal energy needed to solve many of the complex issues around diversity, typically all by oneself. Not only is this a detrimental regression from successful diversity officers in other industries for these companies, but it’s also harmful to these practitioners. They need resources and a team.
Align DEI roles with functions responsible for organization-wide goal setting and strategic planning. If you say that DEI is a company-wide priority, but the CDO has zero involvement with helping to set the direction of the organization, then it is not a priority. Just as your sales and marketing execs are ultimately responsible for the development and execution of your go-to-market strategy, your CDO is responsible for the company’s DEI strategy and holding leaders across the organization accountable for specific parts of that strategy.
If it sounds bizarre to hire a sales executive, give them no team, minimal budget, and no access to leadership, then maybe don’t do that to your CDO. DEI roles do not always have to be in the C-suite to be effective, but they should certainly be close and have unfettered access to executives.
Emphasize other core business functions
By design, CDOs are strategic partners to every functional leader across an organization. Believe it or not, there are many DEI initiatives that can and should be the focus of your sales, marketing, engineering, product, design, customer success, and legal teams—beyond recruiting. Effective CDOs have the unique ability to make critical connections between these functions and concepts of equity and inclusion.
- Have you considered the composition of your customer base and how to reach new user profiles?
- Have you examined your marketing materials and ensured that they demonstrate cultural competence?
- Have you thought about how to build products using inclusive design principles?
- Have you quantified the impact of your product or service on underserved communities?
Your CDO probably has and you should leverage them.
Focus on driving impact through your product or service
If you haven’t thought critically about how to leverage these positions to get your organization to drive institutional or structural changes in your industry, then remove your corporate solidarity statement because you weren’t actually paying attention. The benefit of having a CDO is that you have an in-house strategic partner who can help you understand issues of access and equity in your respective industry and how to incorporate certain features or behaviors into your products that mitigate these issues.
For example, financial technology (fintech) has the potential to significantly reduce instances of bias and discrimination in the lending process―an issue that has long been studied and chronicled. A CDO’s responsibility here is to work cross-functionally to help ensure that the product is addressing faults that have left many underbanked communities behind, and help bolster the bottom line in the process.
Possess necessary skills
DEI practitioners can no longer just be armed with goodwill and basic program management skills. They have to possess business acumen and understand how to navigate complex organizations and make critical connections back to every essential function of the organization. They have to be innovative in their approaches and work cross-functionally to leverage the expertise of diverse teams in order to produce impactful and even revenue-generating solutions for the organization. The next wave of practitioners will always have an eye toward corporate citizenship and social impact, devising strategies to ensure that the organization has a demonstrated and quantifiable positive impact in communities, particularly those that are marginalized.
It is no longer enough to view the DEI practice as a luxury or a nice to have or even just a moral imperative alone. It has to be positioned as a business imperative. It has to be viewed as an actual business function within the organization, and it should be housed in the part of the business that owns comprehensive organizational strategy, not HR.
It is time for us to assess and evolve the DEI practice. We know the things that work and the many things that do not. We know the benefits of a diverse workforce and the consequences of not having one. Now is our opportunity to redefine this space and move the practice and our organizations forward.
Ulysses Smith is head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at Blend.