The Changing Roles of the Chief Diversity Officer

The Changing Roles of the Chief Diversity Officer


Gregg Smith

We all know times are tough. We read daily about some industry sector–retail, financial services, health care, technology or manufacturing–experiencing reductions in force (RIF) in the thousands! These dislocations are painful for the affected employees and the colleagues left behind. Human resources is usually tasked with drawing up layoff lists, coaching managers on what to say and explaining severance terms. Corporations, in their quest to reduce headcount, approach layoffs with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel or the blunt force of a sledge hammer.

In my role as a managing director and head of the diversity and inclusion practice for a global executive search firm, I am in contact with chief diversity officers on an ongoing basis. Diversity and inclusion (D&I) executives have expressed dismay that many of the gains made in diversity recruitment are being rolled back by business retrenchment. Many a chief diversity officer (CDO) finds themselves watching the dismantlement of succession planning models that have positioned women and minorities to step into new opportunities that no longer exist. Understanding that business necessity makes headcount reduction necessary, they either accept the layoff mandate or lose credibility. Those who decide to embrace the responsibilities associated with corporate downsizing seem to take on one of four roles:

The Grief Counselor: This executive sees his or her role as providing counseling and resources to laid-off employees. The CDO or someone on her or his staff may have personally recruited affected workers, and he or she will provide resources and introductions to ease the employees’ transition. They function as a transition hub for employees making sure that employees get resumes formatted as well as receive interview tips and job leads. They lament the loss of talent and show great empathy for affected employees. CDOs that play the Grief Counselor seldom are involved strategically with the decision on who gets laid off.

The Referee: This professional understands the need for reductions, but wants to make sure there is no adverse impact for protected classes. She or he will work with the legal department and do a statistical means test of which protected-class employees are slated to lose their jobs. If statistically there is an over-indexing of protected-class members, he or she will try to achieve greater balance. The referee sees their role as a compliance officer. If it appears the layoffs are being carried out without bias, this person will inform senior management to that effect.