In 2020, the hiring of Chief Diversity Officers increased by 84%–an unprecedentedly high percentage. It’s not surprising considering the political landscape of the last few years has created high support for increased diversity efforts…and high pressure for companies to improve their Diversity and Equity practices.
Unfortunately, within that time frame, not much has actually improved. CDO churn is extremely high, and underrepresented employees don’t often report better working conditions. Many companies think simply hiring one person to improve DEI will solve the problem, but that can’t happen when the resources and support aren’t there to back them up. We recently heard from DEI expert consultants Takima Curry Smith and Michele Shelton on some of the biggest challenges facing CDOs that create barriers to retention and improvement. They talked about their advice for CDOs and for companies wishing to successfully help CDOs do their job.
If you’re a Chief Diversity Officer…
Build Your Village
Being a CDO can be very isolating. Too often companies misguidedly hire a CDO as less of a point person and more of a token person, without ensuring the rest of the company has a similar goal. So finding people with your values within your industry, and other CDOs outside your industry, can give you a necessary support system. You’ll find people to bounce ideas off of, who can let you know what worked for them, and to help you feel less alone.
Ground yourself in the work
One common misconception is that diversity-building doesn’t require any expertise—meaning it may be hard to advance professionally. So it’s a good idea to upscale and inform yourself wherever possible: ask your company to upscale you and upscale yourself where you can; do lots of reading, go to conferences, and use the resources available to you. There are even certifications you can get if you really feel like you need it. Doing DEI work effectively actually takes a lot of knowledge, trial, and error as well as deep emotional energy and proffessionalism—so don’t sell yourself short!
The role of a CDO is to integrate DEI into every department and every initiative. That requires building strong relationships with anyone you can in any branch of the company. If possible, get to know each employee or someone from each department personally and find out where they’re struggling. Present yourself as someone who’s there to help and create partnerships—if you help them out, they may also be more ready to help you achieve your goals to create more equity for underrepresented employees.
If you’re hiring a Chief Diversity Officer…
Give them some authority
To have enough power and influence to genuinely improve things, the CDO must be a chief position that sits in the top of the corporate ring—not just a manager. Traditionally, CDOs and diversity point people report to HR—where they are often iced out or at least not taken seriously. Indeed, for a long time white HR leaders didn’t even think that there was a diversity problem, so they didn’t pay much attention to those brought in to improve it. CDOs need to be afforded enough respect and authority to make meaningful change and impact the organization—and HR should be their best ally.
Make sure they’re supported
Many CDOs cite the lack of support as a reason they leave their jobs. They’re brought in to change things, but then aren’t given a budget or the vote of confidence from company leaders that they’d need to succeed.
Giving a CDO the budget to implement projects and technologies like AI that can find diverse talent better than humans is essential. After all, money talks, and most of the time there’s very little that can get done without it.
Similarly, having the support of the company and having company leaders be accountable is essential. When employees see that prioritizing diversity and listening to the CDO is important to the rest of the Chief corporate ring, they’ll sit up and listen too. Implementing change is only possible when everyone understands and cares about it.
Be open to criticism
Finally, and possibly the hardest, is learning to accept constructive criticism both from CDOs and diverse talent who have experience with the company. Improvement can only happen when we own our mistakes—and being transparent about how things have been and how they can improve is essential both to CDO success and retention and to a solid company image.
Creating an equitable workplace is no easy feat—especially with the historical inequity of our workforce and society ringing in our ears. In making meaningful change, hiring a point person is a good idea—but it’s only the first step. Companies must commit to creating environments where CDOs can succeed. And if you’re a CDO, It’s also important to advocate for yourself and hold leaders accountable as much as possible—and be sure to consult resources and community for support, because you’re doing something incredibly difficult but absolutely essential.