Do you need a chief diversity officer?

Hiring an executive to spearhead diversity and inclusion initiatives might seem like a step in the right direction, but assigning such an important responsibility to a single person is risky


The murder of George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis sparked a wave of protests across the globe. As the Black Lives Matter movement grew, society was forced to confront the systemic inequality embedded in our day-to-day lives, from schools to courtrooms, policing to housing and, of course, in our workplaces.

Panicked business leaders felt pressured to act. Many organisations offered statements of support, with some donating to the movement. Yet others chose to look inwards, promising to change how they operated. According to data from LinkedIn, job postings for diversity and inclusion (D&I) roles jumped 100 per cent in the 45 days after the protests began, with leadership jobs, such as chief diversity officer, prime among them.

But here’s another LinkedIn statistic: the median tenure for a chief diversity officer is three years, compared with six years for chief executives. And another statistic, from CNBC: six years after their first diversity reports, Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Twitter have only seen single digit increases in their percentage of Black employees. So are chief diversity officers actually helping or are they just there to make it look like companies are trying to change?

Inclusion is about difficult conversations

“Of course, chief diversity officers are destined to fail because when they’re appointed, they’re left on their own to change culture with everybody paying lip service to them being on the executive. In truth, the whole construct of diversity as an add-on to a business, rather than a central talent strategy, is the problem,” says Simon Fanshawe, co-founder of Diversity by Design.

He believes business leaders are confused about what they’re trying to achieve with D&I. For Fanshawe, too many businesses think of diversity in terms of a deficit – “we need more female employees” – rather than as an asset – “more female employees will make us better at this objective”. Doing so means diversity becomes about numbers, rather than a central part of what makes a business succeed.

The second issue is around inclusion. “People define inclusion in the following way: ‘to be inclusive, we have to use this language, think this way and behave this way, and if you don’t, we’ll exclude you’,” says Fanshawe.

“Actually, inclusion is about enabling spaces for difficult conversations about differences within your organisation. These spaces should encourage disagreement, as that’s how we get progress. It is a hard thing to do, but it’s the essence of good management.”

Diversity as strategy, not data

Human resources expert Josh Bersin recently wrote a blog post entitled “Chief diversity officer: the toughest job in business”. In it, he argues diversity is a management strategy, not an HR programme and that fairness and equality have to be part of organisational culture, not a set of initiatives.

Claudia Iton, founder of Replete Consulting, agrees that chief diversity officers are destined to have little lasting impact unless they have buy-in from the top. She spent 15 years in senior HR roles at Unilever, including six as global HR director.

“There isn’t always the strongest link between diversity agendas and strategic business objectives in many organisations. Without this, D&I teams are at risk of being buffeted along by what the competition is seen to be doing, losing out on resources and leadership attention,” she says.

However, Iton believes societal change is having a huge impact on businesses and changing demographics means workplaces will have to get D&I issues right or face losing out on both customers and talent.

“Millennials and Gen Z are the consumers and future talent of all serious organisations and they are solidly behind movements like Black Lives Matter. They will demand inclusive workplaces. As more businesses cultivate such workplaces, this will drive competition,” she says. “So, today’s push to be inclusive will become a pull as the realities of the talent magnet effect alongside enhanced creative and financial performance drive more businesses to get on board.”

The future demands equality

The social impact of not getting diversity right is increasingly occupying business leaders’ thoughts. Gen Zers, born between 1996 and 2010, will make up a quarter of the world’s population by 2021, with more than two-thirds (68 per cent) expecting brands to contribute positively to society, according to a survey by Facebook.

Engaging this new audience in the workplace is about more than free lunches and onsite gyms. COVID-19 has put paid to that perk anyway. But rather it’s about building long-term value through social, environmental and sustainable initiatives. In the future of work, business value will be about more than just financial success. It will also be about what an organisation stands for, how it engages consumers and the skills of its talent pool. D&I is at the heart of these issues.

“Today’s leaders have to be better at inclusion, better at empathy and better at looking after people. The domain of responsibility for leaders has shifted from just making money to ensuring you take your people with you,” says Jim Carrick-Birtwell, founder and chief executive of Future Talent Group, a publishing and events company for senior business leaders.

Its recent Future Talent Conference focused on D&I, with Carrick-Birtwell arguing talent professionals have a major opportunity to shape future workforces that are more representative of society. More conversations about inclusion are needed, but they must lead to action.

“Too often, the whole D&I debate is driven by people who hold the power wanting to look like they care. They control the narrative and outcomes, and we don’t hear from those who have been marginalised. That’s not good enough,” he says.

How to make a change

So how can diversity officers truly make a difference in an organisation? Sarah Jenkins, managing director at Saatchi & Saatchi London and co-founder of the Advertising Diversity Task Force, believes there is no shortcut to improving D&I in business; there are ways of bringing teams together.

“To create solutions, you have to understand the problem, not just at leadership levels, but across the entire business,” says Jenkins.

Diversity and inclusion is about continuous learning and having lots of conversations. It requires investment and leadership energy to succeed

The Black Lives Matter movement is a case in point, she says. Saatchi & Saatchi’s employees had a real willingness to learn more about the protests, but the complexity of the issues were a barrier.

To change this, the advertising agency ran a three-hour diversity awareness programme for employees, deep diving into the movement to give the organisation some core knowledge and examples from which to continue learning. They invited some clients and key partners to the event to widen the debate, with individual departments tasked with creating roadmaps towards greater inclusion.

“D&I is about continuous learning and having lots of conversations. It’s a complex issue that requires investment and leadership energy to succeed,” says Jenkins.

The role of chief diversity officer is a thankless one. Often brought in to clear up after high-profile scandals, they provide a convenient scapegoat should D&I issues subsequently fail. And while having a chief diversity officer is better than not having one at all, the reality is that achieving inclusion in the workplace goes beyond one individual or one department. Instead, it’s the role of the organisation as a whole, from leadership teams to junior employees. The future of your business depends on it.


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