Credit: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images
June 7, 2022 7:30 AM EDT

Almost exactly two years ago, America erupted in protest after the murder of George Floyd, a father of five choked to death by Minneapolis police. For its part, corporate America responded with pledges and press releases—often promising expansions of company diversity departments.

Between 2015 and 2020, the number of people with the title “head of diversity” more than doubled, “director of diversity” titles soared 75%, and “chief diversity officer” rose 68% worldwide, according to LinkedIn data. And the employment platform says that trend will only continue this year.

These diversity leaders have their work cut out for them. A recent McKinsey report on racial equity concluded: “The Black/white labor-force disparity persists despite a decade-long economic expansion—and the pandemic has reversed recent progress in narrowing the gap.”

What’s clear is that an old playbook won’t work for a new reality. I spoke to about a dozen managers who work in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space to understand what they need and what they wish their bosses, teams, and colleagues knew.

When offered the top diversity job at Paramount Global, Marva Smalls changed the title. “In prior years, the chief diversity officer role seemed formulaic, almost like an ambassador without a true portfolio,” Smalls says. She’s now the company’s executive vice president and global head of inclusion.

Smalls’s adjusted title speaks to a larger truth: Organizations need to take a holistic approach that extends beyond one single role, offering resources and infrastructure to support diversity efforts and maximize impact. “What we should be leaning into is…the team’s sphere of influence and where it sits within the organization, as well as the levers it pulls to impact the company, industry, and communities at large,” she says. “Otherwise it’s just a box somewhere on an organizational chart.”

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To level the playing field, level your playing field.

For a long time, diversity was the work of human resources. Having diversity leaders report directly to the CEO can be revolutionary.

In 2019, Genentech CEO Alexander Hardy created the role of chief diversity officer and decided it should report directly to him. “Prior to the creation of the Chief Diversity Office, our D&I efforts sat within HR,” explains Quita Highsmith, Genentech’s chief diversity officer. “However, Alexander understood the need for an enterprise-wide mindset and a seat at the decision-making table for us to think bolder than representation and truly advance equity within Genentech’s business.”

But the reporting structure is only a first step. Multiple chief diversity officers mentioned that they don’t want to be the only person of color reporting into the CEO, which really sets up an outsized burden. They don’t want to have to go to other department heads or C-level executives, often white, to get approvals for their initiatives, reinforcing the very power dynamics they are seeking to upend.

At Asana, the CEO also serves on the company’s DE&I council, notes Sonja Gittens Ottley, the company’s head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, who points to the pandemic’s highlighting of workplace inequities as another reason why diversity officers have gained prominence. She cites a report from the consultancy United Minds that found that between 2019 and 2021, more than three-quarters of leaders working in diversity saw bigger budgets (a quarter had budgets of $50 million or more last year), and the number of roles focused on diversity at large within companies quadrupled.

It’s everyone’s job.

The commitment to a diverse and inclusive workforce must be embedded into a company’s values, mission statement, handbooks… everything. “Our diversity strategy is not the responsibility of one department,” says Marissa Andrada, the chief diversity, inclusion, and people officer at Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Training must pervade the highest levels of the company. At the officer level of Genentech (which refers to managers of departments) nearly 100% have completed diversity and inclusion action plans that they then shared with their teams and, in some cases, the entire company on its intranet.

Thanks to that, “we have been able to expand our commitment to D&I beyond hiring and retention, but also into every aspect of our business and company culture,” Highsmith says. “These individual action plans create ownership, so that it is not just the CDO’s responsibility to drive D&I.”

Chipotle’s Andrada notes that in recent years, the chief diversity officer has become a sought-after resource for younger employees grappling with seeing themselves and their values in the culture of a company. “The Great Reset lends a unique opportunity for companies,” she says, “to effectively capture the hearts and minds of the growing Gen Z workforce.” And not just Gen Z: In one recent survey of executives of color, 84% said they strongly considered a company’s commitment to diversity when deciding whether to accept an offer.

It’s not just about race and gender anymore.

The diversity managers I spoke to say they feel a responsibility to the elder, younger, disabled, neurodiverse, LGBTQIA2S+, and many more communities.

“A role that was once focused on race and gender has grown in complexity and inclusion of individuals spanning military status, special needs, LGBTQ, generations, and more. What was once a focus on workforce (people) now includes workplace (culture) and marketplace (business),” says Jackson Lee Davis IV, head of diversity, equity, and inclusion with MassMutual.

One mistake workers make, one diversity leader told me, is thinking that the growing definition of inclusion means they do not need to address their own biases or privileges. “What people don’t understand is that equity,” this person says, “means we have to treat some people differently.”

Safe spaces can be fun, too.

One ongoing concern among diversity professionals is how reacting to news events often forces organizations to link trauma to identity. Some are experimenting with lighter, more joyful programming, from having historians address employees to hosting K-Pop listening parties.

Chipotle’s program rests on mentorship, virtual roundtables, and quarterly trainings. “The most effective programming,” says Andrada, “is an ongoing cadence of events that genuinely engage your workforce and feature a diverse group of individuals from various departments. When [employee resource groups] are influencing employees to make real connections, it helps cultivate an environment where they can thrive and pursue their passions with like-minded coworkers.”

Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.

Increasingly, affinity and employee-resource groups are being called upon to create ways for workers to connect on myriad issues, from breaking news to their own identities. MassMutual’s Davis cites a company program called Brave Space, where, he says, “MassMutual employees have a safe space to share openly and learn from colleagues following traumatic current events.”

In some ways, an outcome of the Trump years, police brutality, and then Floyd’s death has been a push for workplaces to figure out their role in facilitating dialogue.

In June of 2020, Genentech was gearing up for a big celebration for the 50th anniversary of Pride (which commemorates the first pride parade). But between the pandemic and protests around the death of George Floyd that month, recalls Highsmith, “the original plans were no longer a fit for the moment in time.” Working with her office, two employee groups, African Americans in Biotechnology (AAIB) and gPride, instead joined forces to celebrate the “intersectionality of the Pride movement and the Black community” and listen to an outside speaker.

Indeed, DEI professionals who have been at it for decades caution that they’ve been having these conversations for, well, decades, and are glad the rest of the world is finally catching up. Davis recalls flying over Los Angeles during the 1991 riots that followed the beating of Rodney King: It “made a life-long impression on me that led to my career in DEI,” says Davis, who has held roles at Facebook, Royal Caribbean Cruises, ESPN, and Fannie Mae, among others. That’s given him, he says, a “front-row seat to the elevation and growth of the DEI function in the corporate world,” from the sidelines to front and center.

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