Chief Diversity Officers deserve your support: here’s why and how you can help

By Matthew Farmer | 15 December 2023

To be successful in their roles, Chief Diversity Officers need to embody adaptability: they need to build coalitions and relationships with different parts of the business to get their agenda across. They need to inspire and advocate for the causes they represent. They need to design interventions. They need to coach people.  They need to lead their function. And they often need to do this within a context of skepticism from some parts of their organization that feel it’s time to focus on other priorities. All this within the context of limited financial resources due to the current economic downturn and increased pressure within companies to secure the bottom line.

And on top of it all, many diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officers would identify themselves as being from many of the underrepresented communities that they are looking to champion, which brings with it the associated prejudices, micro-aggressions and systemic barriers anyone from these communities may be likely to face. It truly is a multi-faceted role, and these professionals deserve our admiration for the work they do and the leadership they provide. However, the reality is it can also be an exhausting role —  it’s no wonder that many DEI officers leave their positions after a short tenure exhausted and frustrated and many newly hired to the role struggle with expectations. 

DEI professionals certainly face an uphill battle. But one thing we’ve recognised, is that in order to really get the job done and help weave DEI goals into the overall fabric of the company, DEI officers need to work with other parts of the business.   

Hasn’t it always been this way?

In some respects, ‘twas ever thus’. For many years this has been the world that Chief Diversity Officers have inhabited. But for a while at the beginning of the decade, the job became much more high profile and bigger budgets were made available as companies needed to be seen to be doing something amid the public outcry that came in the wake of the death of George Floyd and rise of Black Lives Matter and other associated causes and movements. There is no doubt that this kind of energy and focus was valuable in waking large numbers of people up to the issues and building followership to the cause. DEI became a pull rather than a push. 

However, now that the spotlight is not fixed on DEI efforts as much as it once was, support has begun to wane and CDOs are not supported as well as they could be with the resources to get the job done and perform the neo-generalist roles required of them. 

Working with other parts of the business therefore is key. Ask any Head of DEI and most would say that DEI should be part of everyone’s role and not just a function that sits in the company. [I]t cannot be viewed as something separate but must be integrated into an organization’s broader business strategy and business plan. 

Colorful woven cloth

Weaving DEI into the fabric of your company

So how is it done? As a DEI leader, you can work with recruitment and employee experience to ensure better representation across the organization. You can work with L&D to develop inclusive leaders and ensure that the organization is educated about DEI in ways that are relevant. You can advise senior leaders on strategy, policy and personal accountability. You can work with HR on culture, values, and working practices. There are also opportunities to work with Corporate Citizenship to make a difference in underrepresented communities and bring the issues these communities are facing into the headspace of the organization. You can convene spaces for ERGs to come together. You’re likely already doing many of these things but there may be other or new opportunities to connect with different individuals across the business to further champion change. 

And it shouldn’t simply be the role of the DEI lead or team to champion the integration of these efforts across the company. All employees can be allies for the CDO. How can learning initiatives be better aligned with DEI principles? Can you help to ensure that DEI is given decent time in your town halls and leadership summits? Can you support efforts to ensure opportunities to serve underrepresented communities through your company’s citizenship efforts in meaningful ways are accessible? Put money in your budgets to address DEI. Incorporate some training or an immersive experience into your next offsite. Speak about inclusive leadership to senior leadership and peers. And ultimately, ask your CDO how you can serve. These are all meaningful ways to amplify DEI efforts across your company.  

And this kind of allyship is powerful coming from anywhere – but perhaps most powerful when advocated for by those who inhabit majority identity roles.  For many parts of the world that still means white, means male, means cis-gendered, means able-bodied, means heterosexual. Let this not be the work championed solely by those in underrepresented groups.  

Diverse group of people sitting on stage during a panel discussion

Employee Panel Discussion as part of WP Engine’s Thrive Together Strategic Initiative Workshop on DEI facilitated by Emering World
We’ve seen first-hand what it looks like when companies champion DEI, when CEOs stand behind their CDOs and elevate the work that they do, and when allyship is embraced and a culture is fostered where everyone feels empowered to contribute to a more inclusive workplace. Companies that are truly committed to DEI efforts will find innovative ways to continue to support this work.  Those that have just done it for lip service and box-ticking will not. 

Find ways to innovate. Work together with other parts of the business. Be an ally and champion your company’s DEI strategy inside the organization. And if you’re looking for some support to kick-start your company’s DEI journey or further integrate your DEI efforts across the business, get in touch!