If your Head of DEI Reports to HR the Effort has Already Failed
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is the new buzzword for 2021. Under the guise of social justice, this new role is trying to unlock the treasure trove of peak performance.
Corporations realized early on that they could enhance creativity and productivity by creating environments where people could bring their full self to work. Research later supported the idea that diverse workforces led to greater innovation and brought new perspectives that had previously been missing in corporations. These insights aligned with new customers opening companies’ customer value stream. Other companies began to see the value of letting people bring their true selves to work and lumped this in with diversity, equity, and inclusion. This was, quite possibly, an attempt to solve corporate world hunger.
Early DEI grew out of failed affirmative action initiatives. Awareness of workplace economic discrepancies helped accelerate the importance of DEI. Now, growth for equality is blooming in corporate society, at least from the outside looking in.
I question at times if companies really do care about DEI. Some, like Patagonia and Nike, have an activist spirit with transparent intentions. Other companies truly recognize the value of diverse thinking and have the intention of creating greater value. Most companies, however, just want to be seen by the public as addressing DEI but, in reality, they care very little about the transformation.
Company culture historically belongs, inappropriately, to Human Resources (HR). People make up the culture, so does that mean HR must be the rightful owner of it? In truth, HR has very little immediate impact on any organizational change, let alone on the massive undertaking of transforming culture. More than likely, HR in your organization lacks influence and relevance in the organization. While operations focuses on how the work gets accomplished, HR gets buried in administrative bureaucracy, rendering it useless in driving organizational change.
HR will remain home to misfit toys until organizations change as a whole. The first sign that your initiative is in trouble is that no one knows who should own the initiative, so it is given to HR. The second indicator is that no one truly cares about the initiative, and HR serves as a convenient scapegoat when the movement fails. Some HR departments are great at moving the corporate needle and are empowered to do so. Netflix models an ideal example of HR that is tightly aligned with operations, with the two departments working together to drive business growth. Unfortunately, this is a rare example.
Early in my career, when I worked for HR, we were given the task of improving the company’s leadership. We implemented training programs to develop a greater sense of leadership acumen. Then we overhauled the performance management system for managers. Lastly, we transformed the succession planning process to specifically seek leadership talents with appropriate soft skills. In the end, though, the leadership in place ignored the changes, continued to hire technical experts, and kept behaving poorly. The initiative had failed the minute it was assigned to those who were not accountable for it.
To get DEI right, first you must define what success looks like. This starts with recruiting and hiring. HR plays a key role in attracting a diverse talent base, recruiting from unique colleges, and developing blind interviewing and hiring processes. Next, HR helps in succession planning and an equitable promotions process for a diverse leadership team. However, hiring managers own promotions, and promotions come from the ranks of operators, which reduces the influence HR can have in promoting DEI. The next stage is ensuring employees are able to speak candidly and freely. This needs to be developed by the entire organization and not simply by HR.
The dream of DEI centers on inclusion, on not having a single member of the organization feel like an outsider. Previous mantras called this a “family atmosphere,” meaning that members of the organization have enough emotional intelligence that all employees feels safe to voice their opinions.
This poses the question of who is in a position to make this a reality. A groundswell from the bottom can drive change, but this is rare. With top leadership pushing down, the message can get lost and distorted as it travels through layers of filters. For a change like this to occur, it must come from every level.
Organizations that understand this have their head of DEI report directly to the CEO, and it is not just an honorary role. They must be able to tap into HR to look at recruiting and hiring. Then they can float across the organization to coach on promotions. Lastly, they involve themselves in every corner of the company to mentor inclusion during everyday work.
Before acting on DEI, you need to ask what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you really believe that DEI will help your business, or do you just want to look good? We all know the right answer to that question, which should empower you to give the initiative the best odds to be successful. While organizationally, it isn’t the be all and end all, DEI can set up an organization for long-term success if positioned correctly in the ecosystem.
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