Where Have All the Chief Diversity Officers Gone?
#evolve Magazine
April 26, 2023

After the Black Lives Matter movement took center stage in the summer of 2020, a plethora of companies — many of them under pressure to show their commitment to providing diverse and inclusive workplaces — hired chief diversity officers (CDOs).

Unfortunately, less than three years later, the number of CDOs is dwindling. Some are leaving voluntarily, while others have had their positions cut.

And once CDOs do leave, regardless of the reason, companies aren’t always inclined to replace them. Even though CDO was the C-suite title with the fastest hiring growth in 2020 and 2021, a recent LinkedIn report found that hiring for this role declined by 4.5% in 2022.

This begs the question: What do organizations risk losing when CDOs depart? 

Who Are Chief Diversity Officers?

A chief diversity officer is a member of upper-level management who is responsible for a company’s inclusion and equity initiatives.

CDOs create and implement strategies to ensure a welcoming environment exists for people of all genders, races, cultures, ages and ability levels. They do this through initiatives related to staff training, workplace activities, recruitment and the overall company culture.

Typical duties of a CDO include: 

  • Recruiting diverse employees
  • Identifying areas within the company that lack diversity
  • Creating and organizing diversity training
  • Creating organization-wide diversity and inclusion plans
  • Receiving and addressing employee discrimination concerns. 

Most CDOs hold a bachelor’s degree and an advanced degree in human resources management, social justice, sociology, public administration or a related field. Some have also earned a doctoral degree focusing on multicultural relations or communications, and many secure a diversity certification from a reputable organization such as Cornell University.

On top of their educational backgrounds, most have five to 10 years of career experience working with different races, genders, cultures, ages and backgrounds, and a minimum of two years in management.

Source: Indeed.com 

Why CDO Positions Are Disappearing

There are numerous reasons why CDOs are departing, but most stem from a lack of support, resources, and companywide commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

“Chief diversity officer roles were created without thought about how they would work long term,” said Ella F. Washington, a professor of management at Georgetown University and author of “The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion.”

Washington explained that CDOs don’t have enough resources, so they typically have to do more than one person can manage. On average, CDOs perform the work of at least three people, which isn’t sustainable, Washington said, Meanwhile, other company leaders at that level aren’t expected to carry the same burden.

The Harvard Business Review reported that many CDO hires are simply superficial: “Chief diversity officers, frequently women of color, (are hired) without empowering them to root out the cause of systemic inequities. … They serve as a buffer for the organization’s leadership, and unfortunately, the buck tends to stop there.”

Tricia Callender, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Thinx, a period-underwear company, said CDOs are leaving companies because they are under-resourced and under-supported and because companies have not clearly defined the link between diversity and profitability. As a result, “it’s positioned as a social justice function that is on the sidelines of a company’s strategy — if at all.”

Meanwhile, other companies are choosing to eliminate their DEI-related positions due to financial concerns.

Research by Collage Group, a cultural intelligence company, found many companies, when faced with economic uncertainties, choose to eliminate their DEI positions first.

“This is a shortsighted approach,” said Zekeera Belton, vice president of client services at Collage Group. “These companies may see the move as a money-saving tactic, but in the long term, it will only cost them.”

In addition, she said, the urgency and desire that emerged in the summer of 2020 to “put the work in” on DEI issues seems to have dissipated across many industries.

“This is assuredly very frustrating for CDOs,” Belton said. “This reality is concerning, and it definitely speaks to DEI not being a core pillar for many firms. So many companies see it as simply an add-on. This thinking needs to flip, but until it does, CDOs will not be able to reach their full capabilities and we are likely to see CDOs continue to leave firms with this mentality.”

Another challenge many CDOs face is the very discrimination they fight to eliminate within their organizations.

“They want to make a change, but there are obstacles — most of them needless,” Callender said. “CDOs report that the usual ways discrimination rears its ugly head in the workplace are exponentially worse for them personally and professionally. That huge psychological and functional burden leads to frustration and burnout.” 

More Resources Are Needed

Given the many challenges facing CDOs, what can companies do to retain them and set them up for success?

One crucial factor is reframing how companies view their CDOs.

According to Callender, DEI needs to be seen as a proven way to drive profits. She said companies whose executive teams rank in the top quartile for gender diversity are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than those in the fourth quartile. Ethnically diverse companies are 36% more profitable than those that lack such diversity.

“Diversity is profitable, yet CDOs are not positioned for success,” Callender said. “It’s leaving money on the table — which is always a bad business strategy.”

CDOs also require more support from their peers. Aaron Bruce, vice president and chief diversity officer at ArtCenter College of Design, said, “Rarely can a CDO enter an organization and flip a switch. For new CDOs, that can be frustrating, especially if their C-suite peers are not on board or if resources are limited.”

DEI consultant Aleasa Word shared similar sentiments: “For CDOs to be successful, they need dedicated long-term budgets and enough full-time employees in place. They need real change champions who set the bar high for others in the organization. They need to be able to have someone see and listen to the reasons why DEI is a value trigger.”

Finally, treating the CDO position with the same respect as other upper-management positions would also help.

“Look at the DEI budget and ask yourself if, compared to other company functions, it is comparable. If not, that is a flag,” Callender said. “And make sure there is adequate decision-making authority for key business functions and very visible executive support for the DEI function. Most companies are not doing that, so CDOs and other DEI talent are leaving.”

Diversity Without a CDO

When companies overburden and under-support their CDOs, while simultaneously putting these positions on the chopping block, it says a lot about their commitment to DEI.

The average tenure of a CDO is two years, and many say that isn’t enough time for someone to create effective, long-term changes at an organization.

“DEI labors aren’t a one-and-done action; organizations must view these efforts as ongoing,” Belton said. “A company benefits from having a permanent HR department; the same is true for DEI teams. Two years is a good window for companies to get started on their DEI efforts, but the job is not ‘finished’ in two years, the same way as the job of HR is not ‘finished.’”

Word noted that CDOs are sometimes undoing lifetimes of unconscious bias, microaggressions and accompanying behaviors.

“If companies don’t do the work to keep (CDOs) in place,” she said, “they risk the boomerang effect of the old way of things falling back into place, limiting their stakeholder base and reducing the ability to acquire diverse staff that can provide innovative ideas that appeal to a broader base of consumers, thus increasing the bottom line.”

Companies that lose their CDOs not only also lose momentum on their DEI efforts, but also may miss out on acquiring and retaining talent that values diversity and inclusion.

“It’s not only about hiring diverse talent but making sure they stay, develop and have a path to promotions,” Belton said. “It’s bad for the culture and the bottom line to do otherwise.”

Even those who aren’t members of underrepresented groups may still value a company’s approach to DEI and be turned off by an organization that does not have a CDO in place. A sizable number even evaluate a company’s diversity before accepting a job offer.

Still, having a CDO on staff represents just one part of a company’s DEI efforts.

“Companies can have a CDO in place, but if it’s not clear the organization is committed to diversity efforts, it can backfire,” Washington said. “Instead, we should look for an actual demonstration of commitment.”

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