The big debate: do you need a chief diversity officer?

Is dwindling commitment to the chief diversity officer a sign that the role is not effective, or do organisations need someone sitting in the C-suite to hold them truly accountable? Two experts weigh in 

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the chief diversity & inclusion officer (CDIO) became the hottest hire into C-suite ranks as companies sought to strengthen equality and diversity in the workplace. But has it become more of a hindrance than a help? 

A diversity chief can take organisations away from vague aspirations of inclusivity, ensuring that goals are concrete and properly resourced. The DIAl Global Diversity Review 2023 – an annual study of diversity and inclusion in large UK companies – has found 84% of the 86 participating companies now report having one.

For some, however, appetite for such a role is fading. In February, Zoom replaced its internal diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) team with outside consultants, as part of a new approach. In doing so, they joined the growing list of high-profile organisations to have ditched their diversity chiefs or shrunken their DEI teams in the past twelve months. 

Dwindling commitment to the role has led many to question if it is important or effective enough. Others argue that the demise of the diversity chief is a reflection of inadequate resourcing, not inherent role weakness, and that organisations need someone sitting in the C-suite to hold them truly accountable. So, what’s the best approach for organisations looking to drive their diversity agenda?

A chief diversity officer is valuable, so long as they are given budget, power and influence

Joanna Abeyie 
Founder and director of equity, diversity and inclusion consultancy Blue Moon Partners 

Organisations who are serious about creating a more inclusive workplace need a diversity chief who has the necessary experience and sway in the boardroom to make it a strategic business priority. Increasingly, I’m seeing organisations appoint managers or heads of diversity instead of hiring someone more senior. While these positions can help drive important conversations, without a team, structure or budget, there’s a limit to the impact they can have on the way people are hired, retained or promoted. 

During my time as head of creative diversity at the BBC I was able to build the creative diversity strategy and work collaboratively with commissioners, but the role doesn’t enable you to hire commissioners or commission programmes to ensure that on-air content reflected our audience. Some organisations may hire this role to satisfy non-exec asks and address public pressure, but they fail to put this role into a place within the organisation where they have the resources to effect change. 

The understanding of DEI has been lost as the conversation has become over-politicised

I’ve seen first-hand the difference between organisations that have an empowered diversity chief – someone with autonomy and budget – and those that don’t. They are faster on their feet when it comes to reacting to challenges or complaints and they tend to be more successful at embedding an inclusive culture. What I see a lot of companies struggling with is finding someone with the right set of skills to take on the responsibilities of the CDIO. A person who is passionate about diversity is not enough; a diversity chief needs to be strategic, they need to be a leader. Culture will eat your strategy for breakfast unless you’re able to appoint someone who can manage pressure, respond to challenges and lead an agenda across different locations and stakeholders. 

The understanding of DEI has been lost and confused as the conversation has become over-politicised. Too often a diversity chief hire is seen as a measure of how ‘woke’ a company is, rather than being seen as an instrumental part of a strategy to provide people with the cultural environment they need to thrive. 

Looking to the future, I see the responsibilities of the diversity chief eventually becoming part of the chief people officer remit. But as of right now, we’re not there yet. We need someone sitting in the C-suite to push the diversity agenda because it’s still not fully understood. 

DEI is important, but as a separate job function it is redundant

Josh Bersin 
Industry analyst and CEO of advisory firm The Josh Bersin Company 

We can’t maximise the genuine organisational and commercial benefits of DEI until we get out of an ‘oppressor-oppressed dialogue.’ Some of the people who came into diversity as a career wanted to advance this agenda, and this is the wrong way to do it. Diversity is a management strategy, not an HR programme; fairness and equality have to be part of organisational culture, not a set of initiatives or quotas that organisations feel they must fill.

The onus should be on leaders to embed the principles of inclusion into every business department

There is a concern that the CDIO role has tended to be about policing diversity and inclusion initiatives, but we don’t want to penalise people for something that they may not even be aware they’re doing. This can have the adverse effect of presenting DEI as a policy to be rolled out, rather than something that is everyone’s responsibility. Even courses on unconscious bias can have negative feedback. This is why we’re starting to see people rethink their diversity approach, with the number of CDIO job listings dropping 18% from December 2022 to January 2023, according to data by Indeed.

DEI leaders have one of the hardest jobs in business. This is because social justice or mission-related programmes tend to have minimal impact compared to knowing and understanding the business case for being diverse and inclusive. Most executives will agree that there’s a business benefit to being more inclusive, which is why the onus should be on existing senior leaders to embed the principles of inclusion, fair pay, and open-minded discussions into every business department. 

Back in the day, we had chief digital officers who were tasked with accelerating digital transformation projects. This job is no longer as necessary because we’re all digital now. I think the diversity chief is going through a similar phase. That’s not to say the issue is no longer important, we absolutely need to make diversity, equality and inclusion a living reality in our organisations, but across all functions and roles.