Chief diversity officers (CDOs) are set up to fail in many companies. These talented DEI professionals often experience tremendous disappointment and depart with really negative feelings. An alarming number of corporate CDOs stay less than two years. Given how essential DEI is to the success of today’s businesses, CEOs really need CDOs to stay and succeed.
I’ve worked extensively with CDOs over the past two decades; many have expressed their frustrations to me. I’ve also been able to make my own determinations about why they weren’t achieving the DEI results their organizations were pursuing. Additionally, over the past 18 months, I’ve learned a lot in forums with corporate CDOs spanning just about every industry—including panels and conversations about their leadership challenges. These leaders worked in public and private sectors, and in organizations of all sizes that are mostly headquartered in the U.S. I also interviewed more than two dozen CDOs specifically for this article. Here are 12 ways CDOs consistently say CEOs and companies fail them:
1. CDOs Are Chiefs And Vice Presidents In Name Only
CDOs rarely have seats at the table with other C-Suite executives. On many dimensions, one of these VPs isn’t like the others. They don’t have the same decision-making authority. Compared to other VPs, CDOs say their budgets and staffs are much smaller. Also, their compensation packages are reportedly much lower than counterparts within the company who have similar titles. Everyday reminders of these inequities are paradoxical and understandably frustrating to the person whose job it is to be the company’s top equity officer.
2. CEOs Rarely Talk To CDOs
In recruitment conversations, CEOs often tell prospective CDOs how much they personally value DEI, yet they don’t get to spend much time with CDOs after they accept the positions. The CDO doesn’t have the same access to the CEO as do other VPs. One told me he’d talked with the CEO a total of 30 minutes over a two-year period; 20 of those were during their one-on-one when he was interviewing for the job.
3. CDOs Don’t Report To The CEO
Despite the position supposedly being responsible for the integration of DEI into every aspect of the business, the CDO’s boss in many places is the chief human resources officer (CHRO). It’s worse in some instances: despite having chief and VP titles themselves, CDOs report to someone who reports to the CHRO. This makes them two layers removed from the CEO. Some were told they’d be reporting dually to the CEO and HR Chief – they say it’s a terrible arrangement because substantive engagement with the CEO is relatively lower, oftentimes nonexistent.
4. CDOs Are Hired Into Haphazardly-Conceived Jobs
In too many businesses, CEOs jumped on the ‘everybody else is doing it bandwagon’ and created CDO positions without being entirely clear about what the role was really supposed to be and do. In the weeks after George Floyd’s murder, lots of businesses abruptly created CDO positions. Many DEI professionals who took those jobs less than three years ago have already left. To be sure, executives were hastily creating these positions long before summer 2020, sometimes under intense pressure from their diverse employees to do something in response to specific internal DEI crises.
5. CDO Roles Are Lopsidedly HR-Focused
Like financial operations, communications, human resources, marketing, and legal affairs, DEI should be a cross-business function. In many places it’s isolated to one area of the company: HR. Some DEI professionals ascend to the CDO job through diversity recruiting roles, but this isn’t the case for all. Regardless of their paths to the CDO position, many understand the job they accepted to be multidimensional, all encompassing. They recognize that their company’s DEI needs, challenges, vulnerabilities, and possibilities, include, but expand far beyond HR-related responsibilities. “They pay people to do HR; I should be partnering with them, not doing the HR team’s diversity work entirely for them,” a former tech industry CDO told me.
6. Execs Attempt To Solve DEI Problems Without CDOs
Weirdly, when there’s a crisis that involves racial or gender discrimination, the CDO is too often left out of the conversation. Instead, legal and communications teams work on making the crisis go away as quickly, quietly, and inexpensively as possible. They too often mishandle these situations in ways that disappoint women and employees of color within the company, as well as invite criticism from diverse customers and others on social media. CDOs say certain missteps could’ve been avoided had their cultural intelligence and expertise on diverse communities been invited to the crisis response table. It isn’t just about being invited – they also want their expertise to be as valued as the expertise colleagues from legal and communications bring.
7. What CDOs Say About Racial Problems Gets Discredited
The CDO tells the CEO the company has a serious racial problem. It’s based on what they’ve experienced firsthand or observed, or it’s credibly informed by what employees of color have reported to them. The CEO ignores this; tells the CDO all the reasons why they’re wrong; lists a few things the company has recently done for people of color (thereby making it incapable of racism); seeks out a handful of other execs (sometimes, but not always people of color) who say there isn’t a problem; and then ultimately rejects the CDO’s advice on what the company should do. Versions of this occur far too often, mostly to CDOs of color and most especially to women of color.
8. DEI Work Isn’t Deeply Connected To The Business Strategy
It’s painfully apparent to many CDOs that the work they lead isn’t nearly as connected as it should be to other parts of the business. With the exception of demographic representation numbers, the CEO and executive leadership team usually don’t have the same expectations for KPIs; the same shared, enterprise-wide accountability standards; and the same strategic concern for DEI as they do other things. Most CDOs strongly believe that good business strategy has DEI deeply, measurably, and sustainably imbedded into its every dimension.
9. What CDOs Do Isn’t Viewed As High Stakes
Many CDOs pursued and accepted their jobs because they care deeply about DEI. They want to help companies enact their espoused values and improve on longstanding failures. The work feels urgent to them, but oftentimes not to other executives at their level and above. CDOs report that something else is almost always seemingly more urgent than DEI, despite the looming threat of one massive discrimination or harassment lawsuit potentially costing the company millions of dollars and tarnishing its brand.
10. CDOs’ Professional Reputations Are Put At Risk
When the company fails to address workplace homophobia, a gay or lesbian CDO can lose credibility with queer colleagues. Similarly, when businesses are in the news for racial discrimination, CDOs of color could be viewed as incompetent, which might disqualify them from future leadership roles elsewhere. “To be fair, this is the occupational hazard that any executive takes on when they accept a position on the executive leadership team,” a CDO in the financial sector told me. “The problem is that we aren’t really executives, we aren’t on those leadership teams where people get paid enough money to assume this level of what can easily become long-term damage to our professional reputations.”
11. Nothing (Or Very Little) Is Done To Retain CDOs
As previously noted, too many talented professionals transition in and out of CDO roles within two years. Many say the executives to whom they were reporting did very little (in some instances, nothing) to retain them. Usually, no offer is made to fix the cultural, structural, and systemic issues that compel frustrated CDOs to leave. Some executives convince themselves that the CDO is simply moving on to an opportunity that’s a better fit. “They wouldn’t let a great CFO leave after 18 months without trying to negotiate a different set of arrangements that satisfy that person’s expectations,” one healthcare CDO said in an interview. “But there’s no negotiating with us; they’re unwilling to bend on fixing a structure that we keep telling them is fucked up.”
12. Nothing Changes From One CDO To The Next
A CDO leaves and execs swiftly hire someone else without doing an autopsy of what went wrong. They don’t make significant structural revisions to the role. The new CDO is therefore set up to fail.
A company’s DEI effectiveness depends greatly on its CDO being positioned for success. Having a seat at the table alongside other C-Suite executives is essential. Making them report to someone other than the CEO strongly and offensively conveys to these DEI leaders that they aren’t real executives. Also, CEOs have to pay CDOs like they pay other executives (the same level salaries, bonuses, stock options, and all); empower them with the same level of authority and autonomy; and give them budgets and staffing structures that are appropriate for an enterprise-wide function.
Moreover, CDOs have to be treated like the experts they are. CEOs ought to rely on them heavily for advice, avoid attempting to resolve DEI crises without their significant input, and believe them when they say the company has a serious DEI problem that places it at reputational and financial risk. What the CDO does has to be treated as consequentially as what the chief technology officer does (like if the business was expected to function without email for a month, for example). Situating the CDO’s work entirely or even primarily in HR denies a company the infrastructure that’s required to fully execute a comprehensive, integrated DEI business strategy.
CDOs need CEOs and other C-Suite peers to partner with them on creating and sustaining cultures, structures, and systems that hold every employee (including themselves) accountable for actualizing the company’s DEI commitments. Lastly, CEOs really must stop letting extremely talented CDOs walk out the door without investing considerably more effort into retaining them.
By Shaun Harper
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