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The Startup

4 Things to Know Before Hiring a Chief Diversity Officer

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

You’re an up-and-coming business or a staid Fortune 500 company and noticing that many of your colleagues are complaining about a lack of diversity.

For most folks, they say, “Wow. We need diversity training, stat!”… and may stop there. But for others, they think it’s simply having t-shirts that say “We Support Diversity” and slapping on rainbow paraphernalia, a Black Power fist, or some other type of oppressed society’s iconography.

Or even still, some say to themselves, “We have a good group or community here. We don’t *need* a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO).”

And… that’s PRECISELY why they do.

“But LaShana, we have a Human Resources (HR) department that can handle that, and we get along and… [here comes the lie]… we don’t have those problems here.” (Also plausible substitute: “those problems are everywhere followed by a simple pledge to “do better.”)

Now, if you’re feeling a bit of tinge like I’m calling someone or some company out in particular, let me remind you that I’ve been doing work in the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) space off-and-on since the early 2000s, and I’ve committed to working on it full-time since 2018.

That means hours upon hours of phone calls for — at minimum — two full years. There are 52 weeks in a year (roughly), meaning 104 weeks for two years. And that’s if I have at least one DEI-related phone call in the week (I can assure you that minimum has rarely happened).

So, we’re talking anywhere between 100 and 300 phone calls, with maybe anywhere between one to three hours per session. You can do the math from there. I’ve talked to a lot of different folks about a lot of different DEI strategies they’re planning to do or want help doing. So no, I’m probably not just talking about the one or two companies that might be top of mind.

But before any company or organization draws up its final formula for what is often called anywhere between Diversity Director to CDO, here are four things they should consider:

  1. DEI =/= HR
    I’ve said this time and time again, and will continue to say it: DEI is NOT an HR problem. HR was created to deal with the grit of paperwork: tax forms, personnel private information like addresses and phone numbers as well as other forms of contact, and ensuring that the company or organization meets humane standards (processing reasonable accommodation forms, for example). They should not be the ones handling issues with oppression, bigotry and microaggressions.
  2. Give the CDO power and autonomy
    For the most part, I’ve seen that the CDO is often placed somewhere comfortably underneath a higher title that they’ll report to. That’s great, if the CDO gets to act autonomous to the top executives, and they’re empowered to act with the same level of responsibility and accountability as the CEO. Nothing peeves me more than to have CDOs have a title but absolutely no power to make or implement changes.
  3. Allow the CDO to have a team
    I know, you’re probably like “Duh, obviously!” But I cannot tell you how many folks either saddle their HR folks with this responsibility (with no additional staff) or hire a CDO and expect them to be a one-person band of DEI. Just like for any other business initiative, having and parsing out duties among team members will help streamline the workflow a lot more without having to carry the heavy psychological and, often, emotional burden of changing employee perspectives and absorbing their concerns.
  4. Get a Fractional CDO, in the meantime
    So, you say that you can’t afford a full-out C-suite salary? That’s totally understandable especially in the current age of COVID-19 and businesses slashing their budgets and salaries to keep from going under. However, there is a stopgap method that many overlook: fractional executives. These individuals serve in a for-hire basis to fill in a specific C-suite need. For many, this can be a saving grace, especially when handling intense DEI issues. A diversity consultant can offer this as an added bonus, allowing a company to get the services they need without having to break the bank.

Now that you have some items to think about before latching onto the diversity executive bandwagon, it’s time to implement and take action. In addition to a public statement or branding a DEI initiative, businesses will want to take the next step of having someone who’s sole job it is to consider the various complexities that exist within the intersection of humanity and the workplace.

It’s better to take action now, create the position (even on a fractional basis), and implement a solid, substantial plan than to wait until the next multi-million dollar lawsuit finds its way into the ledgers.

LaShana Lewis is CEO of L. M. Lewis Consulting, a company founded in 2018 which aims to make employers more diverse through recruitment, hiring, and retention best practices. She also serves as Director of the St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective, an organization focused on building systems of race and gender equity for St. Louis’ early-stage, entrepreneurial ecosystem.



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