The way many companies end up implementing DEI — with a cross-functional team — isn't as effective as a dedicated team. Data from the venture capital industry backs this up: firms with dedicated DEI employees or teams achieve greater diversity.
With a dedicated team or employee, an organization expresses a strong commitment to DEI that goes beyond public, yet largely ineffective, gestures to combat bias and promote inclusion. Specialist teams turn DEI promises into action. They set goals, hold leaders accountable, and ensure DEI is a part of everything the business does.
Few businesses would approach sales, marketing, or finance as tasks to be handled by different employees scattered across the organization.
It shouldn't be any different for DEI.
And more organizations are beginning to see the value in building a dedicated DEI team. As a result, the demand for diversity and inclusion employees has hit a record high, according to data from LinkedIn.
The one caveat to this is for smaller companies, where people are typically used to wearing many hats. These companies may not be big enough for a fully dedicated team yet, and might instead have a designated DEI employee or team with responsibilities similar to those outlined below. Importantly, DEI initiatives should still not be “extra curricular” work: This person or people should have time carved out of their other jobs specifically for leading DEI initiatives.
In either case, establishing a DEI team rather than tacking diversity and inclusion onto your existing employees’ core duties allows your organization to ensure DEI receives the attention, support, and resources it merits. Here are four reasons why that’s the case.
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1. Dedicated Teams Bring the Right Expertise to Lead DEI Initiatives
HR industry analyst Josh Bersin reckons the chief diversity officer role is the “toughest job in business.” Indeed, companies expect a lot from diversity leaders — they are responsible for promoting inclusion across the business, from recruiting strategies to marketing campaigns and product development.
As part of their work, they have to lead tough conversations on race, inequality, and privilege. According to Damien Hooper-Campbell, the chief diversity officer at Zoom Video Communications: “You should also be involved... in helping leaders when they are having doubts about what to say to thousands of employees the day after George Floyd is murdered; in product reviews that help your company think more inclusively about what they’re putting out; and with conversations with legislators when we’re talking about policy.”
Any employee who already has a full-time role at the company won't have the time or expertise to be a leader here as well.
Mikaela Kiner, the founder and CEO of Reverb, said DEI leaders have a strong understanding of DEI concepts -- they can identify resistance to DEI in the organization and set clear, measurable goals for diversity, equity, inclusion, and retention.
Based on this understanding, diversity managers or teams can implement bias-free interviewing and hiring practices, create inclusive onboarding programs, develop fair performance management processes, and more.
2. Dedicated Teams Position Diversity and Inclusion as a Business-Wide Priority
Hiring for a dedicated DEI role, rather than relying on volunteers, shows employees that diversity is a top business priority.
DEI teams must work with leaders and peers across the organization to ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion are baked into everything the business does. For example, a diversity manager might audit a company’s supplier database and come up with a strategy to source more diverse suppliers. This business-wide focus on DEI signals that diversity and inclusion are core parts of the company’s mission.
That’s why, though the home for DEI may well be in HR, the diversity team should partner with departments across the organization.
Jedd Ong, who leads diversity at RingCentral, shares that the company’s diversity team drives marketing, HR, and sales initiatives. This cross-functional approach allows them to serve RingCentral’s diverse customer and employee base. “You want to make sure they are working as thought partners to leaders in the organization, working in tandem with leaders to give them...counseling on each priority… the role of a DEI practitioner is being that thought partner who can help guide leaders on understanding how diversity can better any organization.”
By working closely with departments throughout the business in this way, the diversity manager helps teams align their work with DEI goals.
3. Dedicated Teams Put Action Behind DEI Goals
Employees are tired of DEI lip-service — they expect companies to make genuine progress toward diversity and inclusion goals, according to data from Glassdoor. When you hire a dedicated DEI role, you demonstrate the company’s commitment to creating an inclusive work environment.
Cyrus Mehri, a civil rights attorney who prosecuted several high-profile discrimination lawsuits, said many organizations offer DEI initiatives, like bias training, but fail to follow up with more interventions. “They want drive-by diversity...if diversity and inclusion is buried in the organizational structure, it’s not going to have a lot of power. When you keep choosing the options on the menu that don’t create change, you’re purposely not creating change. It’s part of the intentional discrimination.”
Dedicated DEI teams put action behind DEI goals in several ways. According to LinkedIn, DEI teams are claiming “small wins” by putting concrete programs and practices in place. For example, Gerri Mason Hall, who was then the chief diversity and social responsibility officer at Sodexo Americas, said the company developed a diversity scorecard. The scorecard shows hiring, retention, and promotion rates for underrepresented groups. Each month the company reviews the data to check progress and identify problems.
At Dropbox, the DEI team wanted to foster a sense of belonging and connection in a hybrid workforce. Not all employees could attend meetings in person in the San Francisco office, so they started hosting all company meetings and training sessions virtually.
4. Dedicated Teams Prevent Underrepresented Groups from Doing Invisible Labor
Frequently, the onus of DEI falls onto employees who come from underrepresented communities. According to a Wharton study, women and people of color are more likely to speak out against bias, advance DEI in hiring, and raise awareness of workplace DEI policies. In its research, Nature found underrepresented faculty members in the United States play a “disproportionate role” in advancing DEI.
Several Black professionals told the New York Times they’d been asked to lead DEI programs. Kim Crowder, a DEI consultant, said such employees were set up to fail in many cases. “I feel strongly that current employees should avoid and not be asked to become the ‘expert’ on diversity, equity and inclusion within their organizations. They are often not protected and don’t have the power to make changes.”
A dedicated DEI team member has the exclusive responsibility to carry out DEI goals. Therefore, they can place their full attention on the DEI strategy. In addition, having a well-resourced department head up diversity and inclusion efforts puts less pressure on employees to lead DEI initiatives in addition to their core duties.
How to Support Your Dedicated DEI Team
As you hire for dedicated DEI roles, you have to set them up for success. Gallup’s research found dedicated DEI teams are more effective when they have executive sponsorship, financial resources, and data.
Here are steps you can take to support the team.
Build a company culture that “insists on equality”
A dedicated diversity team will struggle to make your organization more inclusive without a company-wide commitment to DEI. “Companies will not reap benefits from diversity unless they build a culture that insists on equality,” write Robin J. Ely and David A. Thomas in the Harvard Business Review. And such an organization-wide commitment is more likely when senior leaders champion DEI.
At RingCentral, the CEO is a vocal champion of DEI. Ong says employees also have spaces to talk through concerns — the company has a range of employee resource groups, such as ones for mothers and neurodiverse employees. “It's so important that you create that safe space where people feel [comfortable] and can build community.”
Another way to embed DEI into organizational culture is to tie diversity goals to managers’ and leaders’ compensation. The Diversity Best Practice Inclusion Index found businesses that took this step scored highest on representation. Such companies set diversity percentages for their companies. Of course, targets must be developed as part of a broader inclusion and equity strategy. Hitting racial diversity hiring goals, for example, doesn’t mean much if Black employees have higher turnover rates.
You can also encourage ongoing evaluation to get a sense of where the organization stands on diversity and inclusion. The National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) has created a series of checklists, self-assessments, and templates companies can use to assess inclusion initiatives. For example, the Employee Development Checklist helps managers audit their coaching efforts and identify potential bias.
Ensure the team has adequate budget, authority, and capacity
Unless diversity teams have adequate resources, they won’t progress on a company’s DEI agenda. Specifically, a dedicated DEI team needs a budget, authority, and capacity, HR Executive recommends.
Karina Cabrera Bell, founding and managing partner of OpenAccess, says DEI leaders need support to do their work: “Not providing a budget or staff and thinking that DEI can be a ‘fix’ to racism in the short term is a receipt for failure.”
There’s a valuable way to think about equipping diversity leaders. Ask yourself what resources the company would make available to a new CFO, suggests Tamika Curry Smith, president of The TCS Group, Inc. “At no point would we ever put a CFO in place with no team, with no finance team, with no budget and say ‘CFO you’re responsible for all of the financial policies and procedures and driving financial results for the company.’ You would never do that.”
Companies that are serious in their approach show their commitment in a number of ways. Well-resourced DEI teams, or employees, have the money and talent to carry out their work. Beyond financial and human resources, diversity managers also need the authority to hold people accountable.
Provide access to people data and analytics
Only 35% of chief diversity officers say they have employee demographic data to serve their organization’s DEI goals. Yet, DEI teams need data to hold the organization’s leaders accountable for diversity and inclusion.
Albrey Brown, the head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Airtable, said a lack of data undermined DEI work, citing an example: “...one [DEI] leader is in an ongoing battle with Legal to report promotion rates, broken down by gender and ethnicity. Without this vital information, she wouldn’t be able to measure the results of her career development initiatives.” In the absence of this data, DEI leaders struggle to check the business’s current state and set realistic goals.
Ong says data informs all diversity initiatives at RingCentral: “Data is power. Knowing everything about your employee base... arms you with the knowledge that you can build the programs that are going to be impactful to them.” Ong continues that most companies have access to various data sources to inform DEI projects, including engagement scores, recruiting data, and even referral information.
Identify the information you need to get started with your DEI strategy. Consider reviewing representation across role types and within management layers, compensation and benefits, and performance review data. You can learn more about key metrics and driving action with data in this DEI Reporting Guide.
DEI Shouldn’t Be an Afterthought
Nearly all companies are thinking deeply about DEI, but not all treat it as the focus area they claim it is. Most organizations' critical business goals — increased sales, satisfied customers, happy employees — are backed by teams of talented, well-resourced employees.
By contrast, DEI initiatives are frequently carried forward by “overburdened" employees, informal DEI volunteers.
Your business should approach DEI as seriously as any other business priority. To take the next step in your inclusion journey, bring leaders and employees together and have conversations around the DEI goals that matter to them. This sets the foundation for your future DEI team to build an inclusive workplace.
Turn your strategy into action: Discover what it takes to get started with ChartHop’s DEI Reporting Guide