The Changing Roles of the Chief Diversity Officer

As diversity recruitment is threatened by record layoffs, CDOs must strive to be strategic partners

The Activist: This executive took an active role in all the social movements before joining corporate America: civil liberties, gender equity, racial justice, same-sex marriage, domestic rights, nuclear disarmament, etc. Such individuals are revered for their willingness to “speak truth to power.” The Activist is often seen as the public face of the company. This is especially true of CDOs who work for consumer companies.  Activists often are the most upset at the prospect of layoffs wiping out minority gains. They will camp outside the offices of any senior executives whom they feel they can persuade to save as many jobs as possible. Typically in the face of economic pressures, this approach is not effective; however, the Activist takes great pride if he or she is able to save a few token jobs.

The Partner: The CDO in the Partner role has a seat at the table. Partners are members of the executive committee and are involved in discussions about proposed layoffs. They provide adverse-impact statistics to the group before any decisions are made. Partners look at the proposed gaps in the organization and determine which diverse executive can scale up and take on new responsibility. The reality is that whenever an organization reduces headcount, the remaining positions  often become bigger, given that the same amount of work needs to be done – but with fewer people.

A CDO in a Partner role cannot prevent layoffs, but she or he can ensure that they are fair and that the remaining minority employees are positioned for the coming upside.  In doing so, the CDO not only becomes an integral part of the change management process, but more importantly uses diversity as a tool to achieve greater organizational strength and effectiveness.

Since most would agree that having a CDO who is a strategic partner is desirable, one may logically ask why doesn’t it happen more often? It’s been my experience that there are four barriers that hinder CDOs from playing a more robust role at a company:

The revolving door of CDOs. With an average CDO tenure of less than 3 years, how can one develop true lasting partnerships?

My way or (I go down) the highway. Many CDOs have a clear but often dogmatic view as to how D&I should be implemented (which is too often based on what worked at one of their past D&I posts).  They need to be more flexible in their approach.

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