HR Leaders and Diversity Chiefs Continue to Push for Inclusion

November 30, 2023 – HR leaders and executive recruiters alike say that promoting diversity and belonging in the workplace is not just a buzzword. It’s a crucial aspect of modern businesses. Companies that foster diversity and belonging have been proven to have better financial performance, increased innovation, and a more engaged workforce. However, a recent report from The Christopher Group’s Pam Noble explains that with the recent supreme court ruling on affirmative action in colleges and universities the question arises, ‘Do all companies need a chief diversity officer (CDO)?’ and ‘what happens when they aren’t present?’

“A CDO is a high-level executive responsible for developing and implementing strategies that promote diversity and belonging within an organization and the community it supports,” said Ms. Noble, who serves as president, executive recruiting solutions & DEIB practice leader. “They work to create a workplace culture that values and respects differences and ensures equal opportunities for all employees regardless of their race, sexual orientation, religion, subculture, neurodiversity, or any other personal identity.”

One aspect of a CDO’s role is to create policies and practices that promote diversity and belonging, educate employees on bias and sensitivity, and ensure that employment policies, procedures, and practices are fair and unbiased, according to Ms. Noble. She says that they help create space so every employee can be their authentic selves at work.

In addition to their responsibilities within the organization, CDOs play a crucial role in connecting the internal and external components of their work, including investing time and funds in the communities they serve, Ms. Noble explains. “As advocates for diversity and belonging, CDOs recognize that their impact extends beyond the confines of the organization and into the broader community,” she said. “They understand that investing in diversity and belonging is beneficial for the company and society at large.”

Do All Companies Need a CDO?

The answer is complex, as it depends on the company’s size, industry, and current diversity initiatives. Some companies may not require a CDO if they already have a strong culture of diversity and belonging where all employees, regardless of background, feel they can bring their authentic selves to work – creating an environment where they belong. Other businesses, while they may not require a full-time CDO, can benefit from hiring a diversity consultant to guide their diversity and belonging efforts.

Research has shown that companies without a CDO are less likely to have diverse leadership and employees. “This lack of diversity can result in a homogenous workplace culture that is less innovative and less competitive,” said Ms. Noble. “Homogeneousness goes beyond someone like me – like me means similar thoughts, ideas, and viewpoints limiting an organization to look beyond what is in front of them. A homogenous workplace can also make it challenging for the company to attract and retain top talent, particularly from under-represented groups. The gap doesn’t allow the organization to break through the system creating stasis and limiting the view of what is possible and new ways of thinking. The absence of a CDO can also impact a company’s bottom line. A lack of diversity and inclusivity can lead to lower employee morale, decreased productivity, and higher turnover rates. Furthermore, companies that lack a CDO may be more susceptible to lawsuits related to discrimination and bias.”

What Happens When a CDO is Present?

When a company has a CDO, it can experience many benefits that positively impact its success, according to Ms. Noble. “A CDO can help create a workplace culture that values and respects differences and ensures equal opportunities for all employees,” she said. “By fostering a diverse and inclusive environment, employees are more likely to feel valued, included, and motivated to contribute to the company’s success.”

Ms. Noble also explains that a diverse workforce combined with an inclusive culture can bring new thoughts, ideas, and perspectives to the table, leading to increased innovation and creativity. “Companies with a CDO are more likely to attract, retain, and engage employees from diverse backgrounds who can bring unique ideas and experiences to the company,” she said. “Additionally, a CDO can help the company make better business decisions by ensuring that the decision-making process considers the perspectives and experiences of all employees. This approach can lead to better-informed decisions that consider the needs and interests of all stakeholders and the current and future communities they serve. Employees are more likely to stay with a company that values and respects their differences. Companies with a CDO are more likely to have a diverse workforce throughout the organization and a workplace culture that promotes belonging, which can lead to better employee engagement and retention.”

Furthermore, Ms. Noble notes that it is important that the employees within a company reflects the population it serves. “This allows companies to understand better and cater to the needs and preferences of their target audience,” she says. “This alignment fosters a deeper connection and trust between the company and its customers or clients. When people see themselves represented within an organization, they are more likely to feel understood, valued, and supported. This sense of belonging can enhance the company’s reputation and strengthen its relationship with the public, leading to increased customer loyalty, improved sales performance, and a competitive edge in the market.”

However, progress is only made when a CDO partners with business leaders to infuse diversity and belonging into all ways of working, Ms. Noble explains. “A CDO needs the entire organization’s partnership, from leadership to employees, to effect real change. Initiatives must be ingrained in the organization’s culture and supported by all employees,” she said. “Additionally, the CDO
must have the necessary resources, such as a budget and staff, to implement their initiatives successfully.”

“Organizational leaders must proactively evaluate not only their hiring processes but also evaluate promotion and retention policies.”

Overall, Ms. Noble says that promoting diversity and belonging in the workplace is crucial for modern businesses. “Whether a company needs a CDO depends on various factors, including size, industry, and current diversity initiatives,” he said. “A lack of a CDO can hinder progress toward a more diverse and inclusive workplace, while a CDO can significantly aid in promoting diversity and belonging. However, a CDO alone is not enough, and organizations must support diversity initiatives at all levels to effect real change. Ultimately, creating a diverse and inclusive workplace benefits everyone, from the employees to the company’s bottom line.”

Creating Company-Wide Change

DEI challenges in organizations have traditionally been addressed through content-based approaches like networking and mentoring, according to Tom Connolly, chief human resources officer at Kingsley Gate. “However, today we are witnessing a shift towards structural responses that address inherent biases within organizations and talent placement as companies understand that mentoring alone won’t fix the structural barriers in place,” he said. “Now, companies are looking at their recruiting process and saying, ‘Wait, this process is inherently biased’, and re-assessing how to make it more fair…using things like algorithmic search” to go after a more diverse pool of qualified candidates.”

Furthermore, building out this holistic strategy includes not just bringing in diverse talent but also building out a supportive pipeline so they can eventually become leaders in the organization: “It’s on leaders and boards to be very purposeful about the value that having a really strong DEI approach brings; it’s not just about gender, it’s not just about race, it’s about cognitive diversity as well, and enabling those people to be accepted and actually have a journey through the companies,” said Francesca d’Arcangeli, chief operating officer at Kingsley Gate. “And that’s very much from the top, all the way throughout the organization. And actually, it’s our job as executive search consultants to ask and make sure that the companies we’re working with are doing that.”

A Top Down and Bottom Up Approach

A collective effort is crucial in successfully driving DEI initiatives within organizations so that

DEI is embedded in company values and is being carried out by everyone rather than one individual with limited resources and impact. “Organizations need to keep pushing and ensure there is an effort made by everyone in the organization – not just HR or a DEI officer,” said Kasey Kaiser, partner, healthcare technology & life sciences, digital health & employer technology at Direct Recruiters Inc. “Make sure DEI- related initiatives are ingrained in company core values, not just a quota and afterthought. Create an inclusive environment, empower people, and make sure company actions align with leadership’s words. Continue conducting trainings, and benchmarking progress. Create a mentorship program to ensure there is an effort for growth and training. Research has proven that having people with seats at the table who have different perspectives leads to company growth… but it takes a conscious effort to make progress.”

In order for DEI efforts to make an impact, they must be integrated throughout the day-to-day operations of an organization. “Leaders need to look at diversity not as a vertical, not as one person’s role or one person’s area of responsibility, but as a horizontal and something that needs to be everyone’s responsibility and touch every part of the organization,” said Julio Suárez, managing director at DRi Waterstone.

Ben Warner, VP of talent at Acertitude, continues on a similar thread, explaining that the only way to help carry out the DEI initiatives each company envisions is for each employee to be considering how they can each individually integrate DEI into their daily lives and role at the company. “Sustaining momentum for DEI initiatives within organizations requires a strategic and concerted effort,” he said. “To achieve this, organizations and diversity leaders should consider creating tangible DEI projects and activities that actively involve colleagues. Overall, sustaining momentum for these efforts not only fosters a culture of inclusivity, but also demonstrates a genuine commitment to DEI practices. The end goal is to create meaningful and lasting change within the organization.”

Establish Baseline Metrics

Understanding where an organization stands regarding diverse representation is critical. By establishing baseline metrics related to gender, race, ethnicity, age, and other relevant factors, companies can identify areas for improvement and set realistic goals. “Many companies are holding themselves accountable by establishing metrics to monitor progress and ensure continual improvement,” said Clinton Browning, partner and head of dreamscape at Daversa Partners.

Some organizations have actually created a standard metric for companies to use to assess their baseline from a DEI standpoint. The Council For Advancement in Support of Education created their own DEI index as a way to measure DEI. “It’s a concept that could be used across any nonprofit environment,” said Deb Taft, chief executive officer at Lindauer. “The idea is that one considers a set of measures and understands what the leadership looks like, where investments are being made, who’s receiving professional development, what are the networks and the portfolios of the fundraisers.”

When organizations have a measurement system for finding the baseline and tracking progress, they have completed a key step towards instituting change. Once these metrics are established, regular reporting on DEI metrics ensures accountability and transparency within an organization. Sharing this information with employees fosters trust and allows for collective ownership of the company’s diversity goals.

Measuring Your Entire DEI Strategy

Similar to evaluating the overall DEI strategy to make sure it encompasses both content and structural DEI initiatives, organizations must take a similarly holistic approach to measurement. “Organizational leaders must proactively evaluate not only their hiring processes but also evaluate promotion and retention policies,” said Carlos N. Medina, vice president for equity and inclusion and senior consultant at Academic Search. “This evaluation aims to eliminate biases and establish a truly equitable workplace where opportunities are accessible to all.” Once a company evaluates these processes for biases, a measurement system must be put in place to track progress towards an equitable workplace.

By establishing baseline metrics, organizations can identify areas for improvement and set realistic goals; regular reporting and sharing of DEI metrics fosters accountability, transparency, and collective ownership of diversity goals within the company. With a holistic approach to measurement ensuring that the evaluation encompasses all facets of the DEI strategy, including hiring, promotion, and retention policies.

Reflecting The Company’s Mission / Clientele

Not only does a leader help shape the internal culture, but they also reflect the organization to the world. If the entire leadership team lacks diversity, any external statement on a company’s dedication to diversity weakens. “Candidates want to see evidence of the board commitment to DEI based on its makeup,” said Crystal Stephens, senior director at Boardwalk Consulting. “If the board is diverse, it is a positive sign that the organization holds diversity as a key priority. A diverse senior management team also reflects a commitment to DEI.”

“A lack of a CDO can hinder progress toward a more diverse and inclusive workplace, while a CDO can significantly aid in promoting diversity and belonging.”

This is particularly the case at the non-profit level. “Because so much of a non-profit’s work is dedicated to philanthropic initiatives within diverse communities, the leadership must reflect the individuals the organization is helping,” said Greg DeShields, executive director of tourism diversity matters at Searchwide Global. “Non-profits often work towards addressing social issues and promoting positive change in communities. Leaders must create a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion with ongoing commitment and effort. When leaders prioritize and actively champion these principles, they lay the foundation for an environment where everyone can thrive and contribute their best.”

Most importantly, not only must leaders initiate and carry out the DEI efforts, but they must also be willing to listen and adapt so that their strategy truly helps increase DEI at the organization, according to Siobhan Doherty, partner & regional practice head, social impact and environment, Americas at Perrett Laver. “The willingness of leadership teams to actively listen and have, often challenging, conversations with their teams and stakeholders is critical to achieving greater inclusivity,” she said. “Top leadership should not only make verbal commitments but also demonstrate their commitment through their actions and behaviors. Their actions should align with their professed dedication to diversity and inclusion. This entails actively participating in D&I initiatives, receiving training, and maintaining openness to feedback and ongoing learning.”

Leadership goes beyond simply occupying a position; it encompasses shaping internal culture and reflecting an organization to the outside world. Effective leaders set the tone by establishing organizational values, inspire motivation by creating a sense of purpose, nurture talent through development opportunities, build trust as a foundation for success, and lead through change with resilience and adaptability. By understanding the profound impact of leadership in these areas, organizations can cultivate strong leaders who drive positive organizational culture and foster success.

AI’s Limitations With DEI

Generative AI continues to be a key topic of conversation throughout industries and the search industry is no different. While there are plenty of potential applications for this novel technology, using it as a means of promoting diversity at organizations as well as assisting with DEI initiatives more broadly is definitely a widely held belief. Nevertheless the overarching sentiment is that AI is still a tool so it must be used with awareness and care rather than seen as a solution or a replacement to humans.

AI has become an integral part of our lives, revolutionizing industries and transforming the way we live and work, and the same can be said for the search industry and for DEI initiatives within organizations. “Depending on which side you ask, AI will lead to either a data-driven meritocracy or a DEI crisis,” said Jin Ro, chief product officer at ON Partners. “In an ideal model, AI provides a wide aperture to a larger and more diverse pool of candidates where the best fit would emerge based solely on merit and fit.”

“Nevertheless some limitations exist with this tool that must be considered when using it,” Mr. Ro said. “There are built in social biases. AI models are only as good as its training data. Additionally, there is no recognition of recent events where a situation might require nuance or care. Finally, the internal workings and process are unclear to the user so it is difficult to parse through the source of the output. Nevertheless, AI has incredible potential to help recruiters find a wider pool of talented and qualified talent.”

This is still an early tool and figuring out the balance for where the AI is used and where recruiters make decisions is a key part of the success. “We are still at the very nascent stages of what AI can do and the impact it will have on the hiring market in general. AI, when programmed properly, is exponentially more accurate and efficient at targeting profiles than a human is. However, once a profile has been identified by AI, I still believe that the most sought after candidates will expect to be contacted by a human being – not by an AI bot.” said Dana Feller, founder & managing partner Hudson Gate.

Finally, the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to DEI is to remember that at the end of the day, while an organization may have leadership that cares about DEI, it is incredibly difficult to make these goals a reality if the company doesn’t align their DEI perspective with their business goals. It has already been proven time and time again– in studies from Deloitte that diverse organizations are twice as likely to exceed revenue goals, proving diversity increases the capacity for innovation, and others – that organizations with a diversity of viewpoints are more profitable than homogenous ones.

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