CDOs on the Run: Why 2021 Has Been a Tough Year in DEI

According to LinkedIn data, the number of Chief Diversity Officers hired between 2015 and 2020 grew by 107%. The peak of that wave seems to have come in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 as social justice movements put an increasing amount of pressure on companies to get diversity, equity and inclusion right.

In 2021, however, progress has been slow. Chief Diversity Officers have been on the move with startling regularity, as turnover for the position is now averaging just three years. While many companies have realized that a designated leader needs to be at the head of diversity decisions, it doesn’t necessarily mean companies are setting these CDOs up for success.

Of all the C-suite roles, CDOs spend an inordinate amount of time persuading business partners, teams and leaders of the value that good DEI strategies have for the business — even though numerous studies have already established the benefit of diversity.

“They’re spending a lot of time in meetings convincing people that this is important and don’t always have sufficient time to do the work that needs to be done in order to move the needle on diversity,” Dr. Stephanie Creary, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told Marketplace in June 2021.

Moving the Needle

The CDO’s goals vary, from increasing equity in hiring and promotions to advising the company on diverse product decisions and consulting company leaders when broader societal issues impact the workplace environment.

After social justice movements regained momentum in 2020, companies were quick to post messages of support on social media or publicly denounce the events that had unfolded. Still, it was ultimately the CDO’s job to ensure companies were doing the right things to protect the image of the business and be on the right side of history.

It’s a role that is both taxing and disheartening at times. Many CDOs have idealistic ideas of how they can make an impact, but after a relatively short period within the role, many realize the corporate culture doesn’t exist to support their objectives. Whether that is due to shifting business priorities or systemic issues from outside the company bleeding into the organization, the result is often the same: frustrated CDOs in search of a company with more commitment (and perhaps more influence) to the DEI cause.

“Folks are leaving because organizations have created these roles and they think they’re ready, but they don’t fully have that top-down leadership commitment,” says Lissiah Hundley, Head of Strategic Partnerships and Client Fulfillment at DiversityInc.

She recommends for CDOs joining a new organization or someone taking a new CDO role ask the following questions directly in the hiring process:

  • Do you have support? (i.e. an assistant)
  • Do you have a team? And if not, are there resources to grow a team?
  • Is there a budget defined for talent and programs you need to implement?
  • If you don’t have a budget, when will that change and where will it come from?

“All of this tells a story,” Hundley says. “It’s a clear indicator about the organization’s view of the work and that’s one of the biggest issues. Folks go into these roles thinking they have the support of their leadership team and really it’s just the support of the person who hired them while the C-suite isn’t fully invested or doesn’t understand the business connection.”

As we noted in our recent examination of CDOs’ importance and influence, the best performing organizations have the CDO reporting directly to the Chief Executive Officer. A frequent and critical issue of contention centers on the size of the diversity team, something many CDOs want to know about before taking the job. But even that curiosity can prove costly, as evident with the recent case of Joseph B. Hill.

After an extensive interview process, Hill was four days from starting as the new Chief Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Memorial Hermann Health System when he received a letter rescinding the offer. Among the many reasons cited, stakeholders at Hermann Health System were “uncomfortable” with him inquiring about hiring staff and also believed he was being “too sensitive about issues of race.”

Retaining CDOs for the Long term

There are a number of things companies can do to help prevent turnovers. Some may sound like common sense, yet these steps remain elusive to many companies across industries and businesses of all sizes.

For example, you might think the list of qualifications and the vetting process would be extensive for the CDO position, but the reality doesn’t quite fit. Following Floyd’s murder, companies that didn’t have a CDO recognized they needed to get their houses in order, but instead of seeking out proven DEI talent, many simply pulled talent from other positions to serve as CDO based solely on the fact they were a person of color.

While resources may have been provided with the job and duties, expectations and goals were, in many instances, not communicated clearly. This scenario is also symptomatic of a bigger issue: the desire to simply check the CDO box without embracing all that a properly experienced CDO can do.

“It can be adversarial at times,” Hundley said. “If the organization isn’t willing and open to listening, they won’t let you challenge and question their norms, you’re not going to be happy. They brought you in for a reason. Something is broken that needs to be fixed. If you can’t challenge it, what are you there for?”

In cases such as Hill’s, it had nothing to do with his experience; he has 20 years of experience working as a DEI executive within healthcare specifically. Instead, the company faced a different problem: it was uncomfortable with what Hill brought to the table and that it meant real change would have to occur.

Fred Hobby, former president of the Institute for Diversity and Health at the American Hospital Association, told NBC News, “those who are doing the hiring have forgotten that DEI officers are hired to be a conscience, to be a guide, to be a mentor to the organization, to help it transition from a not very inclusive organization to an inclusive organization.”

“Very little has changed, even with all these companies saying last year, ‘We are 100% in on diversity.’ One key reason it hasn’t changed is because of cases like [Hill’s], where an experienced diversity officer is giving you outstanding information to help your organization, and suddenly he’s ‘no longer a fit,’” Hobby continued. “Until the commitment is genuine to make the change, nothing will change. And right now, the commitment is not genuine.”

To better support CDOs, companies need to not only give them a dedicated support team of professionals focused on DEI work, but an adequate budget, clear goals, proper data analysis technology and, most importantly, be open to different ways the CDO might want to measure success. CDOs need regular access to the highest level of decision-makers and sincere buy-in from the entirety of the leadership group.

In other words, the CDO is not window-dressing or a box to check, and they’re not there to coddle you for your DEI efforts (or lack thereof). Instead, they are a key player in an organization’s success and a valuable asset for cultural change. If they’re not treated as such, the average tenure for CDOs will only get shorter.

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