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Tips on Starting a DE&I Office in an Organization

It’s a phenomenon that happens every day—more frequently since the heightened focus on racial justice and diversity, equity and inclusion began in the spring of 2020:

well-meaning organizations rushing to create a diversity, equity, and inclusion function or office that is embedded in their business.

The goal of such as DEI office is to not only help with compliance issues like hiring and employment practices, but also to promote positive employee engagement activities such as employee resource groups and diversity councils that advise and advocate for equity across the enterprise.

I’ve got several clients and even friends who are Chief Diversity Officers or Senior VPs of diversity in their organizations. Some of them report making great progress in key areas such as representation, employee engagement and creating real business practices that promote equity and diversity. Others work to manage their frustration with the unrelenting resistance and skepticism they encounter from their peers or senior leaders. As an outside observer, their roles appear to be very stressful. Most of them become the voice for minoritized or underrepresented group members within their organizations, and they have to manage the paradox of gently (usually) leading their colleagues and CEOs towards their vision of DE&I for the organization on the one hand, while hearing personal accounts from employees on how they don’t see or feel inclusion efforts are really making a difference. CDO level turnover rates are high, and when they leave, they are less likely to take another diversity chief role, opting instead for a different type of job that is less stressful.

In 2021, hiring of diversity chiefs tripled within Standard & Poor’s 500 index firms, according to a report by Russell Reynolds and Associates. However, only about 53% of S&P 500 firms have a Senior Diversity role, up from 47% in 2018.  Given that CDO roles have been common in corporations for two decades or longer, one has to wonder if organizations who are just now creating an executive-level diversity function are doing so in part to keep up with the competition and pursuit of the best talent, or if their efforts aren’t more about optics than about a commitment to equity and the tenants of inclusion. I’m pretty sure if I asked the CEOs of the Fortune 100 companies I’ve worked with if they felt their commitment to diversity was more about optics and appearances, all of them would take great offense. But given the struggle to make progress in representation numbers in all but a few sectors, this adage applies: “if you want to know where somebody really stands when it comes to commitment to DEI&B (Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging), look at their feet,” meaning judge them on what they are actually doing versus what they say they want to do.

Is taking a rushed, unmethodical approach to setting up a new diversity function wrong or bad given what’s happening in the world? My answer is “No”, even if the organization is late to engage or if their commitment feels tentative. Starting the process—however imperfect—has got to be better than doing nothing, right? Most of us in the corporate DE&I space have examples of ill-conceived or poorly executed diversity function launches that created scar tissue in the culture that took years to heal. To learn more about the dos and don’ts, I talked with a few of my CDO/diversity executive friends and colleagues about what they think executive teams need to consider when starting a diversity function, and what advice they would offer to the individuals who are placed in those positions. Here’s what I learned.

For executive teams and heads-of-entity:

  • “CDOs or heads of diversity offices need to be not afraid to speak truth to power and to have the confidence to say what needs to be said. Change is not fun, so you have to be resilient and expect push-back and to be ready to apply the pressure, gently and at the right times. Being a member of an (underrepresented) group doesn’t qualify anyone for those sorts of jobs, even if we’ve got great leadership and people skills. You can start with someone like that, but they are going to need support to be successful. It’s always a team effort, and if they don’t get executive sponsorship and the resources to be successful, they will fail. There is a lot to know if you are in that role, especially when it comes to understanding the range of diversity dimensions, including Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, Accessibility, and Justice,” said Dr. Gena Davis of True Synergy, a consulting company that actually does outsourced Diversity function start-up and management for private clients in the entertainment industry and other sectors. ¹
  • Diversity chiefs need to develop and use their systems thinking skills to imbed diversity or “DEIBA&J.” It’s a multidisciplinary challenge involving change management, organizational development, professional and talent development, strategy, and execution. Setting priorities and connecting all of the actions into a coherent plan takes experience and practice.

For example, I was brought in to deliver training to help a client engage senior leaders who were dominant group members of what the client called “non-diverse” leaders in an organization-wide inclusion effort. The client invested a lot of resources and energy into making sure everyone got a thorough and impactful introductory learning experience. As the last groups started to do the training, I was invited to a meeting with volunteers who had agreed to be “change champions” to help sustain the learning people got from the training. The executive sponsor attended the meeting and I could tell they were anxious by comments like, “We’ve invested a LOT of money in this,” and “People better start showing it was worth it.” In the meeting, we discovered that the training wasn’t linked to any tangible expectation or next step for the organization. The training was THE diversity strategy, period. The sponsor, DEI chief, and change champions all learned a valuable lesson: imbedding DEIBA&J needs to be composed of both events and internal activities that address the way people work, day-to-day.

  • Avoid thinking that hiring a person or persons to work in diversity means that the executive team now doesn’t have responsibility for advancing it. The opposite is true; dedicating resources to diversity will only yield results if and when the executive team lives and breathes and behaves the espoused values of the organization with regard DEIBA&J. “We have a saying that applies to companies who do DEIBA&J effectively says Dr. Gena: ‘Make the company match the brand’ and we believe it.”

For diversity chiefs, directors, or managers who were promoted from within: 

I asked Tanya Blackmon, the President of Auspen Consulting and the former Chief DE&I Officer of a large healthcare organization, to share what she knows.  Here are few of her gems:

  • Ask the executives, “What does that mean to you for us to ‘do’ diversity, equity, and inclusion?” Sometimes it really means, “Can you help us figure out what to do about important holidays like Black History Month, Cinco de Mayo, Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month, and such?” Be prepared for their answers to be all over the map. It will give you a good idea of how you might be able to be an ally to them as they learn more about what you are doing.
  • Set an intent and be ready for it to be a long-term journey. It’s important to take a long- term view of what you are doing and remember your ultimate intention, even if no one else does. You have to meet people where they are and realize that everyone moves on this journey at a different pace.”
  • Be ready to encounter resistance and to expect and even invite it. If you don’t feel any resistance in your work, it may be because people have gone silent versus supporting DEIBA&J. I learned to view no resistance as a bad thing; it’s a totally natural reaction for people, especially if they are comfortable with the status quo. if you’re not feeling any resistance, chances are you’re not moving the culture.

Dr. Gena Davis offered a few great suggestions as well:

  • If possible, before taking the job, clarify the organization’s goals for creating a diversity function or office. The more specific you can make your questions the better. Here are a few ideas about what sorts of questions to ask.
    • What is the organization’s intent behind creating a diversity function?
    • How will we/you know if we are making progress and how will we be measuring it?
    • What sort of financial resources is the company going to commit towards diversity?
    • How will the company’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion be incorporated into the organization’s strategy?

Here are a few suggestions I’ve learned from others:

  • Go on a listening tour or set up listening circles to hear from as wide and diverse a set of employees as possible. This process gives you a chance to develop dialogue and rapport with a lot of people, which also helps them understand what you see as the diversity office’s role for the company. To do this, identify the key questions that you want to ask everybody. Tanya once told me her last listening tour encompassed feedback from over 700 employees (in small groups and individually) in an organization of over 10,000 people.
  • Form a diversity (or DEIBA&J) advisory council. They can become your board of directors of sorts and give you input and feedback in the direction, focus, and effectiveness of your department. Make sure the committee is composed of passionate key players, and don’t limit it to people who are thoroughly familiar with diversity, equity, and inclusion. If they are capable senior level professionals, they will learn their way into being an Advisory Council Member.

There is no one way to start and lead a DEI office or function, no prescribed or guaranteed formula. Each diversity chief has their own strengths, limitations, experience, and knowledge that they need to humbly and attentively pair with what they perceive the organization’s needs are. What’s clear is that the world is becoming more diverse, and companies who do DE&I effectively will have the competitive advantage.

They already do.

¹ Remembering to use this long acronym “DEIBA&J” is another piece of advice I got from Dr. Gena. “If we’re going to talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we can’t leave out access, which is such an important and overlooked element of diversity, both in society and in organizations. When we look at all of those different dimensions together, we create belonging, which is why we include the “B” and for progressive companies, even in the for-profit sector, “Justice” is becoming more and more important to them, especially the new Z demographic entering the workplace.”

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