Chief Diversity Officer: Do You Really Need to Fill this Position?

Chief Diversity Officer: Do You Really Need to Fill this Position?

Emily Smykal

If you work in education or government, you might already be familiar with Chief Diversity Officers. Some Fortune 500 companies have embraced this position, too. But in a typical C-suite, an office dedicated to diversity isn’t yet a mainstay. That may change as demographic shifts and technological progress expose the diversity, or lack thereof, within our work environments.

Diversity is not a new concept to focus on, or even improve. But it is uniquely a 21st century issue for the American workforce. Never before have U.S. workers been so diverse demographically, and their ability to push for equal representation at the highest levels of business and government continues to become more of a focal point. But does that mean every office needs a Chief Diversity Officer?

Some recruiters might argue that they hire regardless of diversity factors–they’re just looking for the most qualified candidates. Some managers might think hiring people who fit in is more important than hiring someone to represent every demographic. In this post we’ll explore the emergence of Chief Diversity Officers, and consider the impact diversity can have on your talent acquisition strategy.

Why Focus on Diversity in the First Place?

Diversity in the workplace can mean different things to different people: minority representation, employees with certain abilities and disabilities, workers of all ages, staff with varying education levels and experience. But besides embracing the idea in order to include candidates from all walks of life, corporate leaders have also acknowledged the business benefits of diversity.

Studies have found that greater workplace diversity can boost innovation, improve creativity and problem solving, and even reduce turnover. Additional research revealed that workers in more diverse organizations are 45% more likely to report a growing market share for their company, and 70% saw their business expand into a new market.

Emergence of Chief Diversity Officers

So how do some businesses reap the benefits of diversity? It seems many are taking cues from their peers in education and government. Chief Diversity Officers, and diversity programs in general, have been in place among these institutions for decades. But recent growth in diversity roles among major businesses and interest in general seem to have coincided with the start of President Obama’s presidency.

Google Trends data helps to make this point:

chief diversity officer data
Other factors include the shifting demographics of the American and global workforce. As early as 2006, research found that among all adults with at least a college degree, only 17% of them worldwide were white males. Add to that the instantaneous spread of information via the internet, and you can see how employers who ignore diversity, or worse try to avoid it, can no longer hide from public view.

Where Are the Chief Diversity Officers?

Schools, nonprofits, and government departments are common places to find successful Chief Diversity Officers, including the American Red Cross and NASA. There is even a National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. In the corporate world, Johnson & Johnson, Aon, Citi, American Express, and GE have employed diversity executives since at least 2007. Tech leaders like Dropbox and Google have also put a business leader at the helm of the issue.

And a quick search on LinkedIn reveals 1,797 members of the social professional network mention “Chief Diversity Officer” specifically. By some estimates there is a diversity manager at one in five Fortune 1000 companies.

But is the role really so prevalent? Job board CareerBuilder has zero openings for that title, while Indeed has 48 and Simply Hired lists just 19. More and more companies are undoubtedly examining the diversity of their workforce. But “Chief Diversity Officer” as a member of the C-suite may not be at the level of some other, seemingly arbitrary titles.

Why Diversity Should Be Part of Your Recruitment Strategy

Successful Chief Diversity Officers and diversity executives drive progressive agendas targeted at untapped talent networks: bringing more women and minorities into tech and finance, for example. Anne Erni, the former Chief Diversity Officer at Lehman Brothers, even developed a program to bring former female employees who had left back to finance.

So should every organization have a mandatory Chief Diversity Officer among their ranks? Not necessarily. Workplace diversity should be more than just a top-down mentality. What’s important for recruiters is examining the current state of diversity within their organization, and incorporating diversity into their overall talent acquisition strategy.

If your company already has a Chief Diversity Officer, or is already a very diverse place to work, that should be a major selling point as you promote your employer brand. Even if the levels of diversity at your organization are questionable, your existing employees are some of your best ambassadors when it comes to attracting more diverse candidates. There are even metrics specifically designed for your diversity hiring efforts.

The benefits of diversity to a business have been laid out by enough research that it would be hard to argue against hiring diverse candidates. Plus, hiring for “cultural fit” over diversity has been proven to have potentially negative impacts on an organization, even serving as a cover for certain prejudices. Recruiters would be best served by viewing a Chief Diversity Officer as one optional piece in the greater puzzle of building a diversified, successful workforce.

Initiatives are far more likely to succeed with executive buy-in, and what better way to gain executive buy-in than having a C-suite position dedicated to the cause? You may not have a Chief Diversity Officer, but if someone’s not appointed to drive diversity initiatives, monitor and report on the numbers, and think about diversity as a strategic business decision, then you could be missing out big time.

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