How to select the right DE&I leader

The diversity, equity and inclusion space is full of people who talk a good game. But that tends to make it harder for recruiters to find the candidate who’ll actually deliver on their objectives


Hire right D&I team (2)

Please note that any advice I offer in my columns is not definitive. Without taking a close look at your organisation’s culture, set-up and motivations, it’s hard for me to provide specific guidance. That said, there are some common mistakes that organisations make when selecting diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) specialists. This month I’m here to help you avoid them.

Actions speak louder than words

The last thing a business wants is anyone who isn’t wholeheartedly committed to their role. Yet it seems that every firm harbours a few people who somehow succeed by talking more than doing, putting in minimal effort while their colleagues toil away passionately. It’s the bane of many people’s lives, isn’t it?

The issue can become especially emotive in the DE&I space, because the whole function is about people: systemic barriers, historical systems of behaviour, belonging, personal progression and value. All of these things can feel particularly personal. 

Consider the person whose CV is routinely overlooked when they put their African surname on it. The disabled job candidate who must ask for their access needs to be met before every interview. The working-class teenager who wants to avoid university for financial reasons but sees countless job ads insisting on a degree. The Muslim woman who faces micro-aggressions at work every time a terrorist attack makes the news. The list goes on. Those people need DE&I teams to care enough to do more than talk. 

Why firms need an in-house DE&I leader

And companies also need them to do more than talk. They need them to act, because they know their organisation is only as good as its people. And guess what? Valued and respected employees are more likely to work harder and achieve the results the company requires to grow the business. A firm’s customers and clients need to feel understood, represented and seen in order to value what it’s offering them. More custom means more business. More business, more growth. More growth, more satisfied shareholders – well, generally, at least.

Selecting the right candidates to work on your people and culture strategy is therefore business-critical. You cannot afford to get it wrong.

As firms of all sizes grasp the importance of having an inclusive culture and a more equitable approach to hiring, there has been a surge in the number hiring in-house DE&I leaders. With this increase comes a rise in expectations, both internally and externally.

How to find the right person

When it comes to interviewing candidates, sounding passionate about DE&I is comparatively easy, because the subject is trendy. There is plenty of accessible information on the subject, which means that many people can speak convincingly about it. But it takes more than knowledge. Further attributes are required to ensure that all the talk will result in measurable improvements. 

Ensure that both you and your candidates are crystal clear about what diversity, equity and inclusion mean in your organisation. That’s incredibly important. DE&I can feel personal, so it’s easy for people to be influenced heavily by their own struggles, which means that they may lose sight of the myriad identities and intersections that they are being hired to advocate for. Too often, people’s personal motivations end up obstructing the changes that their organisations truly need.

While you should never focus too much on personality while hiring, there are useful traits to look out for. The key one for DE&I leaders is resilience. The job of developing fully inclusive workplaces is hard. It can be mentally, emotionally and even physically challenging work. You have to be positive, proactive and persistent, even when it feels that you’re struggling for traction, because the people you’re being paid to support and represent are relying on you. 

Focus on candidates’ tangible achievements

It seems obvious, but seek out candidates with records that can be verified by the measurable results they have achieved. It’s important to know that the person you are hiring is credible based on objective outcomes. It’s certainly not about whom they know or the size of their following on social media.

Be clear about the objectives of the role. How will you know that a positive impact has been made? What is the measure of success and how will the successful candidate be supported to achieve them? These questions often go unasked during the selection process, but they shouldn’t.

Talk is cheap – and the one thing the DE&I field is not short of is talkers. If you leave a conversation with a candidate feeling inspired but with no real idea about what to do next, you may well have been bamboozled.

During the selection process, ask yourself: which problems should this candidate be able to solve? What value could they add? If you do this, you’ll find yourself starting to ask more of those who are leading on your culture and people strategy. 

Warning signs to watch out for

There are too many offensive micro-aggressions to mention them all here, but one that I encounter a lot is the description of a person or team as ‘male, pale and stale’. The number of DE&I leaders who still utter the phrase is astounding. How can you claim to be inclusive if you use this dismissive statement? Identity is complex and layered, so to assume that you know all you need to know about someone simply by looking at them is a telltalle sign that you haven’t understood the brief.

Also beware of those who see themselves as there to police other people’s values. Your DE&I leader is there to help celebrate difference, provide equity for all and create an inclusive environment. What they are not there to do is move resources from one person or group to another. Neither should they be naming and shaming anyone in the organisation they deem to be ‘doing DE&I wrong’. 

Ensure that the function is properly supported

Lastly, ensure that your organisation has laid the foundations for a successful DE&I team. Ask yourself: is there a robust DE&I strategy? Does everyone understand how it will deliver the business goals? Is there governance around it? Is the team responsible for delivering the DE&I goals empowered and supported to do so?

The motivation of the DE&I leader is to ensure that any person’s identity does not limit their ability to get a job, be included at work or advance in their career. While it is right to expect a lot from them, you also need to remember that they require the support to meet the strategic objectives the business has set for them. Prepare for those professionals as you would expect them to prepare for your organisation.