Noted
May 4, 2020

Why a Chief Diversity Officer (Might) Not Solve Diversity Problems

One of the latest trends in corporate inclusion and diversity is the establishment of a head of Diversity. The role has many titles: Chief Diversity Officer, Chief Inclusion Officer, Diversity and Inclusion Director, to name a few. A recent study showed that 234 of the Fortune 500 companies currently have some form of a Chief Diversity Officer. Unfortunately, it seems like many of these Diversity Officers are ill-equipped to do their jobs. Companies may be bringing on diversity leads in yet another attempt to make it look like they truly value diversity.

Potential pitfalls of hiring a Diversity Officer

1. It signals to employees that this sole resource is responsible for everything diversity at the company

I’ve spoken with Diversity Officers at a few brand-name companies, and one of the most common things that they’ve told me is that upon starting their roles, they were bombarded with requests for meetings by employees. Some employees were looking to talk about their experiences as minorities at the company, while some wanted to discuss their struggles to grasp the importance of diversity as a business practice.

It’s great that these conversations are happening, but the fact that employees felt as if they had to wait until a diversity resource was onboarded is a problem. For inclusion to persist throughout a company, it must be a company-wide value. A Diversity Officer is intended to guide the planning on initiatives and work to loop these initiatives into business objectives, but the responsibility cannot fall solely on the shoulders of this officer. It is the job of everyone at the company to promote inclusion and diversity.

2. Some companies seem to be using these officers to mitigate PR scandals

You might recall some of the recent PR scandals from major companies:

  • H&M: the global clothing retailer was shamed on social media in January 2018 after customers discovered a kid’s hoodie with the words “coolest monkey in the jungle” being modeled by a young Black child.
  • Gucci: the luxury brand received some criticism for some culturally insensitive products in February 2018. One item — a black wool balaclava sweater — was particularly criticized and viewed as a form of blackface.
  • Uber: the rideshare company has been dealing with PR issues for the past couple of years. The height of their problems came in February 2017, when former employee Susan Fowler published a 3000-word essay detailing the sexism and harassment she faced while working there.

Is it a coincidence that all three companies hired diversity leaders within a year of their PR scandals? Probably not. H&M created the position only 2 weeks after the news of their racist hoodie went viral.

While there’s no way to know if these companies wouldn’t have hired Diversity Officers if the scandals hadn’t happened, it is clear that the hires were made in an attempt to fix their images as quickly as possible.

3. It’s yet another checkbox diversity item for companies to brag about

Like ERGs, unconscious bias training, and other common corporate diversity programs, Diversity Officers are yet another item that companies can use to boost their profiles as “Top Companies for Diversity.

Obviously, a lot goes into running a diversity program or hiring a Diversity Officer, but the problem is that there isn’t a widely-accepted way to hold companies accountable for the effectiveness of these programs (although we hope to change that very soon). All they have to do is formally announce their inclusion and diversity initiatives, and they have a license to say “See! We value diversity here! We have someone with Diversity in their job title!” It’s time for companies to focus on how their employees are feeling and less on the number of diversity programs that they have in place.

4. Many companies don’t equip their Diversity Officers with the necessary tools and resources to succeed

In the same report by Russell Reynolds Associates mentioned earlier, 97 Chief Diversity Officers were interviewed about the challenges they face in their roles. The number one pain point that these respondents mentioned was a lack of structure and resources to do their jobs. 53% said that they “hold an additional role unrelated to D&I.” This makes it difficult for them to focus solely on improving and implementing the overall I&D strategy.

Additionally, only 35% of the officers said that their company tracks basic employee demographic data. What’s even worse is that 28% of the officers believe that the company I&D strategy is guided by the results of employee surveys. In other words, few Chief Diversity Officers have the data that they need to make decisions around I&D strategy and measure the impact of said programs. The few officers that do, don’t use this data to guide their strategies. As the report mentions, this might point to a lack of support resources with analytics capabilities.

How to make sure that Chief Diversity Officers have an impact

1. Encourage diversity throughout the organization; don’t leave it up to the Diversity Officer

If inclusion and diversity wasn’t truly one of your company’s core values before bringing on a Diversity Officer, don’t expect things to change after you make the hire. H&M and Gucci’s offensive products likely made their way to the public for one of two reasons: 1) They didn’t have a diverse team of people reviewing the products; or 2) any diverse employees that were part of the review process didn’t feel like their voices would be valued if they were to speak up. It’s been proven again and again that diverse teams lead to more productive and more successful businesses. Diversity Officers are more likely to succeed when companies create inclusive cultures where people feel valued and know that their opinions are heard.

2. Give the Diversity Officer a supportive team and resources to succeed

Would a company ever hire software engineers and not provide them with computers? Doubt it.

There’s no point in hiring a Diversity Officer is he/she isn’t going to be properly equipped to do the job. People in these positions need adequate resources around them to be achieve their goals. These resources include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Support from company leadership
  • Access to the company legal and compliance team
  • Employee demographic and sentiment data

With these resources, officers can take the necessary steps to implement their strategies and execute on the inclusion and diversity initiatives put forth by their firms.

Too often, companies rely on their minority employees to push diversity initiatives in addition to their full-time jobs. A Diversity Officer can alleviate some of the pressures that diverse employees feel to be ambassadors for their minority groups, and help companies create inclusive workplaces. However, firms must make sure that they are providing these officers with the resources that they need to be prosper. Don’t get me wrong, I think that a Chief Diversity Officers are well-intentioned, but isn’t it time that diversity moves past well-intentioned, and instead, moves towards well-executed?

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