Sector News

What is a diversity council and how do you make it a success?

December 6, 2020
Diversity & Inclusion

Given the substantial uptick in interest in diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), both for people personally and in workplaces, it is unsurprising we have seen companies either starting new DE&I initiatives or attempting to accelerate their current DE&I efforts.

Some of these efforts have focused on bringing together employees from different backgrounds, perspectives and more to shed light on what it means to them for their company to embrace diversity and foster environments for inclusion. However, if these new collaborative measures are not well-thought out and properly defined, they will fall flat and fail after initial excitement dissipates.

As a global DE&I leader, I have both launched many councils in companies of all sizes, industries and geographies – and disbanded those that were not fit-for-purpose, relaunching them with proper care and attention.

What is a Diversity and Inclusion Council?
Firstly, what are we talking about here. A Diversity and Inclusion council is typically a group, providing representation from different backgrounds within the organization, who meet on a specific cadence to discuss what is being actioned on DE&I, how it’s working and providing advice on what to do next. Essentially, it’s a way to collaborate on DE&I, however if the agenda, intentions, aims and goals are not appropriately laid out, there will be differing and conflicting views meaning success and effective use of time will be unlikely.

Firstly, you need to decide what your initiative’s purpose is.

Why are you creating a council?
Like I said, many organizations are creating these types of councils now to bolster their DE&I work, without really thinking about what they’re trying to do.

Here are some questions I suggest you ask yourself to iron out your purpose.

  • What size is your organization and what is your projected headcount growth for the next year? Council sizes, potential members and meeting cadence will depend on this.
  • What are the criteria for your ideal Chair and council members? Who do you want to be involved and why?
  • What are your current DE&I issues? You can’t create a council to help with issues if you don’t know what they are. If you don’t know, do this analysis first to get at least a baseline understanding.
  • How are people currently engaged? Think about how you currently discuss DE&I internally, externally and how often.
  • Are leadership already engaged? Are all Directors, VPs and C-suite already engaged? If so, how? Detail this – don’t just say “Oh yes, they care”.
  • Is this a single initiative to define future initiatives or is it one initiative, amongst a strategy, which will provide insights on current impacts? Is this the initiative to start your DE&I journey, or is it part of an existing strategy already?
  • Do you have expertise on DE&I internally or are you conflating passion for skillset? Remember, being passionate about DE&I is not the same as having expertise and experience in creating a DE&I strategy.

Once you’ve properly thought about these questions, you’ll have a better idea of what your potential council might look like and what it is trying to solve. Typically, in my decade of doing this work, I have seen that most councils fall into 1 of 2 categories. Let’s talk about what they are and how to make them successful.

The main types of DE&I council
Typically, there are 2 main types of DE&I council.

A council consisting of members who sit in senior-leadership, who have decision-making ability in the business
This council will bring together different senior employees in your business to engage them in the DE&I journey. Their role will be to put their weight behind current and future DE&I efforts, embed inclusive practices, be accountable in their remits and willingly go on a personal journey of understanding inclusion, allyship, anti-racism and more. Members of this council will be senior representatives for each remit in your business e.g. Chief Tech Officer for Technology, Chief Product Officer for Product and so on.

This council is focused on engaging senior leadership, with the goal that they will create and continue to embed inclusion in their areas of responsibility, being active and prominent advocates of inclusive practices and leadership.

This council will need to be chaired by someone with DE&I expertise (perhaps you’ve just hired a new senior DE&I leader?), who will share what the organization is doing/intends to do, why, how it is relevant to each of the council members and use this as an avenue to embed training and inclusive leadership values to this group of decision-makers.

A council consisting of junior to mid-tier employees from different backgrounds, providing insights from different lenses
This council will bring together junior to mid-tier employees, from different backgrounds, tenures, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, disabilities, neurodiversities, ages, economic backgrounds, caring responsibilities and more. Potential members should be sourced through an application process (where people can nominate themselves or others) where employees detail why they want to get involved, what they think they’ll bring to the table and anything else you think would be useful.

The role of these people will be to share their insights and perceptions of what it personally means to work at your company, how current initiatives are progressing from their viewpoint and what they think would be good for your workplace to prioritize. This is important as working in a junior or mid-tier role is a very different experience to being in leadership, and it’s important you capture these insights too. Each member will provide feedback and insights into the DE&I roadmap including its strategy, key themes, deliverables, milestones, and goals. I view this type of council as a “think tank”.

It is not their role to implement these initiatives – you should have a dedicated DE&I leader with expertise to do that. Again, please do not conflate passion for skillset. If it is their role, you must ensure there is appropriate training mandated, and this is incorporated into part of their role expectations. DE&I work should not and can not be done as free extra labour.

Similarly, this council will need to be chaired by someone with DE&I expertise (no surprise there!) to take these insights away, mull them over, define what is in the realm of the possible and share back. Ultimately, this person is the decision-maker here and they should ensure they do not allow their own bias to feed into this process. An additional requirement for this council will be an Exec sponsor to provide C-suite accountability for the group, if your DE&I Leader does not sit in C-suite.

Both councils ultimately are there to create a community of people who are interested in advancing DE&I in the organization. Depending on company size, you may also have both – a DE&I Leadership council and a DE&I Think Tank.

Council outputs should compliment the insights you should be gathering regularly through surveying or using an employee engagement platform, which will provide you a scalable way to gather employee perceptions as you grow.

To have the potential for either council to be successful, you should define:

  • What type of council you need – decide which of the above types of council align to your goals and decide who needs to be involved;
  • The cadence of meetings and why – typically, I suggest these meetings are no less than quarterly, but no more regular than monthly. This gives council members time to digest the previous meeting and witness potential positive/negative impacts of new initiatives that will have been rolled out since previous meeting;
  • Commitments from all involved – you must make it clear that this is a commitment of time and members must attend (unless they have fair reason not to). For junior or mid-tier council members, firstly, conversations should be had with managers ahead of kick off (and throughout if need be) to ensure they are given time to attend and that their involvement feeds into their progression reviews. Secondly, if someone is repeatedly not in attendance, there must be a conversation which may mean they are replaced with someone else. For senior-leadership council members, it must be made clear by other C-suite (namely the CEO) that being a part of this council is part of their job and they must prioritize attending, where possible.
  • What success looks like – to determine if the council is serving its purpose, you should broadly define how you will measure its success. Likely, this will focus around collaboration on the DE&I strategy, internal and external engagement.
  • Logistics – how will it work in practice? Be upfront about time commitments, meeting times (especially if it is a global group), expected length of service expected on council and so on.

All of these considerations should be done before opening applications (if relevant), or rolling out any comms on the council. Your first communication on the council should detail all of the above clearly, so people are clear on what is expected before applying and getting involved.

Transparency is key.

It is laudable that many leaders and organizations are beginning to do more around DE&I, forming different ways to collaborate and create connections with employees to ensure different voices are heard.

What we must make sure is that these initiatives are not reactive but are proactive, well-thought out and built for scale and purpose, enabling inclusion to be embedded into your company’s DNA long-term, instead of just creating a rushed buzz for a short few months.

by Sheree Atcheson


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