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Opinion: You’ve hired a chief diversity officer – now what?

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It appears that many companies, organizations, institutions and public entities have established chief diversity officer positions with various titles emphasizing equity, belonging and/or inclusion. Diversity, equity and inclusion is a burgeoning field nationally as we see many more executive-level positions established in various sectors. However, DEI is often misconstrued through misinformation and disinformation efforts to foment so-called “cultural wars” that promote divisiveness and polarization.

Therefore, within this current national climate, the CDO is charged with the executive-level development of various diversity and inclusion initiatives that a company and/or organization is interested in developing and implementing. The effectiveness of such efforts requires leadership not only from the CDO but also from the top executives down through the rank and file. And therein lies the challenge. Too often CDO positions are merely part of a compositional or checklist approach, whereby DEI are simply buzzwords not taken seriously but only to appear as if such groups are concerned about valuing DEI.

A true commitment to the work of CDOs requires organizationally understanding the value of the inclusion of diversity by all stakeholders. It should not be used for purposes of appearance, window dressing, checklists or for sowing division and polarization for political purposes. Organizations should have a core value such as inclusive excellence, which recognizes the rich diversity that all employees, shareholders, consumers and stakeholders bring to the purpose of making a profit; or providing services and products; or providing public education and/or higher education; or providing quality of health care; or for whatever the purpose a particular organization exists.

When it comes to valuing the inclusion of diversity, it is not the rap, it’s the map. It’s not the man, the woman or them – it’s the plan. Any organization, its executive leadership and employees must understand it needs a framework that encompasses at least five critical areas:

  1. Access, success and equity.
  2. Organizational climate.
  3. Culturally conscious professional development.
  4. Organizational commitment.
  5. Global perspectives/international relationships.

Diversity is defined broadly as the individual differences, such as personality, learning styles and life experiences, and the group social differences, such as race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin and disabilities. It also covers cultural, political, religious or other affiliations, such as veteran and socioeconomic status, as well as diversity of viewpoints. Inclusion efforts must be intentional. To be effective, organizations must strive for cultural competence requiring an ability to successfully negotiate cross cultural differences to accomplish practical goals through awareness, attitude, knowledge and skills.

Carla Harris, vice chair of wealth management and senior client adviser at Morgan Stanley, has discussed the business case for diversity by positing that diversity does not just happen: “It needs to be valued as a strategic competitive initiative because we are all competing around innovation. Therefore, you need a lot of ideas to innovate, obtain and retain a leadership position. In other words, we need a lot of perspectives, experiences and different people in the room to innovate, obtain and retain a competitive leadership position.”

She also points out that it is not the social unrest driving change around DEI nor is it the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is the fact that “millennials and Generation Z are becoming the dominant population in the workforce, and they believe excellence is seen in the diverse employees because it is important to show up in the world competitively and to attract and retain the best talent. Otherwise, they will never be an employer of choice. Furthermore, millennials and Generation Z believe employers need to focus on issues of DEI and they must be intentional, accountable and consistent.”

While it may be important companies and organizations have DEI director positions, it is critical that all stakeholders understand the value of the inclusion of diversity; therefore, professional development is crucial. Core values must be incorporated into the missions, visions, strategic long-range plans and action plans because this creates better decision making and a competitive marketplace advantage.

Finally, a culturally conscious business or organization can and will obtain and retain the best talent in a global society for not only the CDO, but for all organizational stakeholders and the bottom line.

Wes Pratt is the chief diversity officer at Missouri State University. He can be reached at wpratt@missouristate.edu.

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