Hiring a DEI Chief Is Not a DEI Strategy

Hiring a DEI Chief Is Not a DEI Strategy

Creating an inclusive work culture requires engagement from the entire leadership team. Here's how.

Between 2015 and 2020, the number of corporate diversity roles increased globally by 71 percent, according to LinkedIn. In particular, jobs with head of diversity titles grew by 107 percent. 

Surprised? I’m not. Here’s why:  

  • Organizations are responding to the employee outcry for more intentionality and results on inclusion, diversity, and equity in the workplace, particularly following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
  • C-suite executives know that creating meaningful and sustainable change requires leadership and focus.
  • Some business leaders recognize and have experienced the power and competitive advantage that comes from diverse, high-performing teams.
  • Some organizations have no idea how to make their plans for inclusion and diversity a meaningful reality, so they hope this new role will be a place to start.

I worked for a Fortune 500 with a leader in this role long before it became trendy, so I’ll admit my view might be a little cynical about the organizations that are just seeing the value now. I am not a fan of performative hiring: adding people of color or women (or people from different backgrounds, beliefs, etc.) because you want to look more diverse, without any real strategy or plan to truly integrate your diverse hires into the workforce. Your new hires, current employees, and outside observers can easily see the superficial nature of this move, which leads to frustration, turnover, and likely a bad reputation for the company.

“All managers are responsible for bringing the initiatives and actions developed by the DEI team to life. They should be held responsible for achieving DEI actions just as they are with business goals”

As an HR professional, many of my friends—people I love and respect—have been or are currently heads of diversity. They are amazing, talented business leaders who can bring about critical change that drives employee engagement and delivers exceptional results. They are not, however, magical creatures who can make all your DEI dreams come true if you just stand aside and hope. They are also not there to take the heat when those DEI dreams don’t come true as quickly as you had hoped. So for those of you leading organizations that have recently hired or are hiring a diversity leader, I offer these insights:

Make sure you are hiring a DEI leader who is qualified to do the job, not because they are the only person of color in the company. Strategic thinking, judgment, and strong communication skills are key to consider.

Be prepared to support your new leader. DEI initiatives require money and resources. Please do not hire a head of diversity and then say “Well, it’s up to them now” and go back to business as usual. Cultural change is a business strategy and should be treated as such.   

Leadership engagement and commitment are required. Leaders own DEI—it’s not just the responsibility of HR and your DEI chief. If your DEI leader is not on the senior team, they need direct and frequent access to the CEO. The CEO should be actively engaged in the strategy and progress of your DEI efforts. Their voice, along with those of other key leaders, should be heard by employees, consumers, and all stakeholders of the company discussing the DEI efforts and their value to the organization.

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Managers matter. I could say this a million times about almost every talent and people initiative. Your diversity leader is one person; they can’t do all the things and answer all the questions about what to say, what to do, how to act. All managers are responsible for bringing the initiatives and actions developed by the DEI team to life. They should be held responsible for achieving DEI actions just as they are with business goals. If you manage people, you are vital to the success of every employee on your team. DEI efforts are about ensuring everyone can bring their best selves to work, and who better to support that than managers? 

Here’s another data point from LinkedIn: The average turnover for heads of diversity is three years. I’m sure the reasons vary widely, but let’s just consider this. What happens to DEI leaders when they come to a new organization ready to make positive changes and they are not able to fulfill their commitment, in part because the elements listed above are not in place? What does that mean for DEI initiatives? Did they hire the wrong person? Was the work done and now these leaders are going to do great work at other organizations?

If you’re on the journey to create an inclusive and equitable organization, make sure you know your end game and how a DEI leader can support your organization in the short- and long-term. DEI is not a summer program—it’s a way of life.

Stephanie Pierce is a connector, coach and founder of two Minneapolis-based businesses, KJP Consulting, a leadership development firm, and stephpierce.com, a community of diverse women inspiring each other to do the work they love. 

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