Are Chief Diversity Officers necessary for a company’s DEI ambitions?

In recent years, organizations have been evolving how they operate in regards to inclusion and representation as they make significant efforts to ensure diversity is embedded in the organization and organizational culture. One step many organizations have made is bringing on a Chief Diversity Officer to introduce, execute, and manage all efforts related to maintaining an inclusive work environment for all. There has been additional conversation surrounding diversity as a part of every organization’s culture and whether a specific role centered around diversity (like a CDO) is necessary or not. We explore both perspectives and provide insight on each.

Why does a company need a CDO?

A Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) is a key member of the executive leadership team, who oversees the strategic implementation of DEI initiatives, while maintaining business alignment. In many cases, DEI responsibilities fall onto diverse employees where diversity is not part of their job function, and they are left doing additional work. This is a common cause for burnout and can lead to retention issues. Alternatively, managers are left with DEI responsibilities but don’t necessarily have the education, skills or time to be able to implement them effectively. Having a DEI-specific role avoids this issue and allows someone to develop, execute and measure DEI initiatives instead of it being a side task of an existing role.

A CDO also allows companies to plan ahead, set diversity goals, and measure performance. This allows businesses to be proactive in their DEI approach. A CDO on a leadership team ensures C-Suite and senior leadership will consistently be advised on DEI. They can work in tandem with other senior roles such as Chief Financial Officers and Chief Marketing Officers to assure diverse thinking is applied to their respective departmental functions as well.

An additional benefit of having a CDO is that they can have influence on attracting and retaining diverse talent. A CDO signifies to diverse employees that a company is serious about creating inclusive cultures and challenging the barriers these employees may face.

A question often posed within organizations is “why can’t an existing CHRO or HR department take care of diversity? Especially since retention is an existing focus of HR already.” While it is true that talent acquisition and retention is a common discipline of HR, the majority of HR teams are not equipped properly to focus on diversity retention. With the inequalities that still exist in the workplace, despite having HR departments, it is a primary responsibility of a CDO to level the playing field and break down those inequalities.

Is a CDO necessary?

Many business leaders claim a CDO is not a requirement and diversity should be a part of a company’s everyday culture with each aspect of the business operated and executed through a DEI lens. When DEI is embedded in company culture without the input from a DEI-specific role, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to uphold and progress DEI actions. With a CDO or Head of DEI, employees and managers throughout a company might take less interest in maintaining efforts as they have the perception that the issue is being dealt with as someone else’ sole responsibility.

Also, introducing DEI throughout the company, for example through training and workshops, and making leaders accountable for an aspect of the company’s DEI goals can result in a deeper understanding of their employees’ culture and the impact of diversity in each role.

This, in turn, makes the organization’s DEI efforts more authentic. A company that takes in the responsibility across its workplace becomes successful because their teams are passionate about it, rather than being seen as a box-ticking exercise mandated by a CDO.

Stakeholders and clients will also be able to see DEI reflected in every aspect of the company, therefore normalizing diversity in hiring and inclusion in the company’s actions.

As the organization cultivates an inclusive environment, employees may feel empowered to speak on social issues with their peers and managers. Employees who feel that their leaders have an open approach to DEI matters could also feel compelled to start an Employee Resource Group or take autonomy in their role if one already exists.

As they progress, others will notice the company investing in their employees’ wellbeing and career aspirations, avoiding a tokenistic approach to diverse hires. Optics from outside the organization will improve and more diverse talent may be interested in joining.

As a senior leadership position, CDOs will often have a strong association with bringing commercial outputs to the business from an investment in diversity initiatives and more diverse hiring. Latest research shows that placing this more commercially driven rationale for increasing diversity right at the center of your company’s approach can actually be counterproductive when it comes to hiring and retaining diverse talent as it “undermines underrepresented groups’ sense of belonging”. When companies embrace DEI in every aspect of the business, they focus on equality-based metrics where employees’ wellbeing, identity, and satisfaction lead to financial success in the long term.

So what is the answer?

When it comes to diversity within a company, there is not a one-size-fits-all process or strategy. It can heavily depend on where an organization is in their DEI journey, their ambitions, and the resources they have to achieve them.  If a company has been operating DEI initiatives for many years and each department is consistently trained on diversity, DEI is already embedded into that organization, and they may not require a specific diversity-focused role.  However, if a company has never focused on diversity as a key aspect of their business but is looking to start, the best first step is to hire an effective Chief Diversity Officer to begin implementing DEI actions and mandates throughout.

If you are interested in starting your DEI journey, get in touch with us to see how we can help.