How Diversity Officers Change Corporate Culture
These executives change hiring practices, oversee trainings and measure company climate.
By Rebecca Koenig, US News
BY 2045, PEOPLE OF color will make up the majority of the U.S. population.
That demographic shift, predicted by the U.S. Census Bureau, is one reason why companies are starting to take workplace diversity, inclusion and equity more seriously. In corporate America, this has manifested in part through the proliferation of chief diversity officers, who are charged with creating policies and climates supportive of workers from an array of backgrounds.
As of 2012, 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies had diversity executives, according to the Wall Street Journal.
"It's becoming standard across companies," says Allison Scott, chief research officer at the Kapor Center, which aims to increase diversity in the technology and entrepreneurship sectors. "I think that's a promising and important sign."
However, having a chief diversity officer on the payroll is not a panacea, researchers say.
"That all sounds good and well, but in the past there wasn't as much accountability for it," says Kisha Jones, assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. "You could get an A for effort for attempting the different practices but not have to show how change happens."
Still, the presence of a diversity executive in the C-suite is one sign job seekers should look for when assessing whether a company is equipped to hire and retain diverse workers and effectively market to the heterogeneous customer base of the future.
Learn more about what these officers do and other signs to look for when evaluating a company's commitment to diversity.
Duties and Conditions for Success
The work of diversity officers, also known as equal opportunity professionals, cuts across departmental boundaries. They influence hiring, training and company cultural practices that relate to three "big buckets," explains Archie Ervin, vice president and chief diversity officer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.
The first is diversity, which is descriptive of the ways in which people differ. The second is inclusion, or the extent to which people thrive in a particular institutional setting. The third is equity, or fairness, which is governed in part by federal policies such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (banning workplace discrimination based on sex, race, color, religion and national origin) and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
For hiring, diversity officers may work with human resources and recruiting teams to measure the breakdown of job applicant and candidate pools by gender, race and other characteristics and suggest changes to remove hiring barriers preventing different sets of people from getting jobs. They may oversee training programs related to unconscious bias, run workshops about communicating effectively in teams or plan classes about civility in the workplace. To better understand the state of a company's climate, officers may issue surveys asking employees how satisfied they are in their roles, then look for patterns in the results that suggest racial, gender or other disparities.
Among the conditions critical to diversity officer success are reporting directly to the CEO, having a mandate to set strategies and possessing the authority to hold managers and workers accountable for meeting goals. One of the most important conditions is building a strong business case to justify their work.
"They can have that moral stance, but that stance alone isn't going to be enough of a motivation," Jones says. "For organizations, it's always coming back to the bottom line."
Challenges Diversity Officers Face
With movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, diversity dominates today's headlines. That these efforts are controversial hints at the pushback diversity officers sometimes face from "people who are resistant to diversity" and "people who feel like they aren't represented in the diversity initiatives," Jones says.
To put it bluntly, she explains, "If white men think things are being taken away from them, that's a tension that needs to be managed."
Google grappled with this problem in August 2017, when a software engineer shared an essay that criticized company efforts to boost the standing of women employees and questioned women's general suitability for technology jobs. In reply, Google's vice president of diversity, integrity and governance issued a statement reiterating that the company is "unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company, and we'll continue to stand for that and be committed to it for the long haul."
The episode exemplifies the common misconception that "diversity officers are only concerned about particular groups," which is "untrue," says Richard Anthony Baker, assistant vice chancellor and assistant vice president of the Office of Equal Opportunity Services at University of Houston and president of the board of the American Association for Access, Equity, and Diversity. "They're concerned about the overall health of the organization by being concerned with everyone."
Workers and managers who aren't necessarily opposed to diversity may still find it uncomfortable to talk about, having grown accustomed to "colorblind models" of operating that experts consider to be outdated, Jones says.
"We've been trained that we don't talk about race, that these protected classes are things we don't openly, strategically discuss," Baker says. "It's a challenge to get over that apprehension to have the conversation."
Other Indications That Companies Value Diversity
To figure out whether a company takes diversity, inclusion and equity seriously, diversity officers are just one factor to consider. The Kapor Center's research identified four other criteria as essential to the success of such efforts at technology companies:
- Setting explicit diversity goals.
- Providing bonuses for hiring referrals of employees from underrepresented backgrounds.
- Conducting unconscious bias trainings
- Establishing employee resource groups for veterans, women, people of color, caregivers and other groups.
Information about most of these criteria should be easily accessible to job seekers on a company's website, Baker says: "It shouldn't be hard for me to find a diversity statement, diversity office or programming. Do they have affinity groups that have some role within the governance?"
These days, company diversity goals should go beyond boilerplate statements, Scott says. When assessing potential employers, she recommends looking for "really sophisticated messages about why it's important and embedded in the work they do and the product they develop." Similarly, check not just that employee resource groups exist, but also whether they have meaningful budgets to carry out programs and channels to communicate with company leaders.
Job interviews present candidates with opportunities to do more research. Baker recommends job seekers ask interviewers about company policies on issues important to them, such as accessibility, gender expression and sexual orientation.
"If they don't know, that would be concerning to me," he says. "I actually want to hear from employees if that's part of the consistent message."