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Diversity Officers - More Harm Than Good?

Although achieving diverse and respectful environments is a noble goal, the use of Diversity Officers is an ineffective substitution for far-reaching systemic change.

Sep 28, 2019

Diversity is one of the most popular yardsticks used to evaluate the success of societies today. Despite the widespread presence of the discussion on diversity in large multinational corporations and academia, only a quarter of the American workforce receives any benefits from these discussions.
The conversation on diversity seems to have reached a plateau, and progress is being impeded due to many factors, one of which could be the very manner in which we have such conversations in the first place. Instead of fighting for policies and fundamental reform that focuses on changing our culture to understand what diversity really means, we are focusing on surface-level discussions, such as those around equal pay among celebrities. The conversation seems to have been focusing on easy, myopic approaches that lead to superficiality and stagnation. A possible example of what these approaches result in is the position of the Diversity Officer.
A Diversity Officer is a relatively modern position in organizations, be it companies or educational institutions, whose overarching goal is to increase minority inclusion and serve as an arbitrator in diversity-based disputes and discrimination cases. The Diversity Officer is also in charge of organizing workshops and lectures to “coach employees on inclusiveness.” While these initiatives may seem like a decent way to raise awareness regarding diversity, the failure to translate these programs into tangible benefits points to their limited effectiveness.
One is left to wonder: is the position of the Diversity Officer just an ineffective substitute for far-reaching systemic change?
Let us first deconstruct why diversity initiatives fail to have a tangible impact. One of the first things that jump out when mapping any particular diversity initiative is how superficial it is. Such initiatives are primarily born and bred in Human Resource and Corporate Social Responsibility offices, and are disconnected from a comprehensive grassroot enterprise growth that institutions should be aiming for. A caveat with diversity efforts resting in the realm of HR and CSR is that these efforts end up being more about recruitment and reputation management, or “checking off the boxes”, as opposed to rigorous and meaningful engagement with diversity.
While the intention in hiring a Diversity Officer is to establish concentrated efforts to diversify the scope, operations, and environment of an institution, that intention is harder to translate to practical action. The person in this position has to shoulder unrealistically huge expectations - changing workplace culture, attracting and retaining diverse pools of talent and creating strategies for inclusive environments to name a few. The appointment of such officers is often preceded by turbulent and polarising events, and may be succeeded by scapegoating in the event that an institution’s diversity and inclusion initiatives fail. In this case, the Diversity Officer serves as a neat target to cast blame upon. Furthermore, these positions are widely under-resourced, both in terms of budget-cuts, as well as structural support. A global search and leadership advisory firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, reported that 53% of the CDOs in S&P 500 companies hold an additional role unrelated to diversity and inclusion. Naturally, this can limit the time and resources that this person can allocate toward achieving optimal results. According to Forbes, “Many companies set their CDO up to fail by placing an unreasonable amount of problems on their plate, along with unrealistic expectations.”
Given that there is relatively little precedence for CDOs in the industry, these individuals and their offices may be pioneers in instilling a “diversity mindset” in their respective constituencies. To make progress on the diversity agenda, it is not enough to consider the Diversity Officer as an end in and of itself. Rather, it must be recognized that it is but a means to an end. What is needed is a more worker-involved approach stretching from lower levels to management all the way to the top, with the leadership actively engaged in discussing and running diversity and inclusion initiatives. It becomes everyone’s responsibility to be involved in a more fair and robust work environment as opposed to pinning this responsibility solely on CDOs. Before we can do all of this, however, we need to recognize that diversity is not just a sexy trend but rather a set of values to actively fight for and eventually realize.
Hafsa Ahmed and Munib Mesinovic are contributing writers. Email them at
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