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How to hire a D&I leader.


Dr. Neil Morelli


While most large companies have diversity and inclusion (D&I) goals as part of their broader workforce strategy, these programs are rarely a top priority. However, the Black Lives Matter protests occurring across the globe have become a rallying cry for business leaders to take stock of their own operations -- and what they could be doing to create a more inclusive workplace.

It has also inspired a wave of hiring for D&I professionals to lead these programs.

The latest report from Glassdoor Economic Research found that while D&I hiring initially dropped when the pandemic began, by June 2020 the number of openings saw a dramatic rebound:

  • In June, 220, D&I job openings soared 55% in response to growing demands for racial justice in all areas of life.
  • Among executive and leadership job openings, “Chief Diversity Officer” and "Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion" are now among the most in-demand roles.
  • Employee reviews on Glassdoor discussing diversity, racial justice, Black Lives Matter, etc. spiked 63%.

Glassdoor Sr. Economist Daniel Zhao noted the hiring trend should send a strong message to employers that employees are watching their response to these events. “In the wake of nationwide protests against racial injustice, employees are expecting employers to not only talk the talk but also walk the walk,” he said in a release about the report. Zhao believes the growing discourse about systemic racism is causing employees to expect more from their employers and sees the spike in D&I hiring as a “meaningful signal of a deeper and more sustained investment.”

Finding, hiring, and retaining talent with specific D&I leadership skills can be challenging, particularly with demand so high. Part of the challenge is that these are still relatively new positions. Many companies have never hired a chief diversity officer (CDO) or head of D&I, which means they don’t have job descriptions or former employees to point to as examples of good hires. They may also not have the internal talent to effectively vet potential candidates.

A casual search on LinkedIn, for example, shows more than 350,000 members have “diversity and inclusion” in their titles. So how do you figure out which ones have the experience, leadership skills, and commitment to thrive in these roles?

For companies just beginning their own D&I executive search process, here are some details to consider when vetting these candidates.

What to look for in a D&I leader

The title. VP of D&I and CDO are currently the most popular titles for D&I professionals. While the VP role is more common (65% compared to 24% of CDOs), these experts have been slowly migrating toward the c-suite as the need for D&I leadership becomes clearer. Regardless of the title you choose, most D&I leaders report to the c-suite and board of directors.

The role. A successful D&I leader will create an environment where all employees feel respected, valued, and included – and make changes where this isn’t occurring. To do that your new hire should hold strategic responsibilities for setting the D&I culture, programs, and related outcomes, and be empowered to make changes where your D&I commitments aren’t reflected in day-to-day operations.

The skills: To be effective, they need to be proven influencers who have the authority to change the way work is done, and the ability to communicate effectively at all levels of the organization. These experts may report to the c-suite, but they need to be able to win over managers and employees if you want your D&I efforts to take root.

They should also have a background in using relevant software to support the D&I charter. O*Net, the occupational information database, suggests anyone in a diversity leadership role should have experience working with both analytics software and human resources platforms in order to monitor workforce trends across the organization. These technical skills will help them track the impact of D&I efforts, and identify cultural issues and counterproductive leadership styles that may be barriers to progress against their goals.

When conducting pre-employment assessment screenings, look for candidates who are assertive, empathetic, have high emotional intelligence, have strong communication and problem-solving skills, and who are engaging storytellers.

The experience: Most D&I leaders come from HR backgrounds, and have experience building and implementing D&I strategies in their prior roles. The ideal candidate doesn’t need to have held a specific D&I title. However, they should be able to demonstrate that they can build a comprehensive D&I strategy that measurably impacts all departments and is tied to specific business goals. Candidates who have only built stand-alone D&I initiatives, such as a leadership training program, may not have the ambition or experience to drive systemic change across your organization.

Finding the right D&I leader may be challenging, but it’s a vital step in creating a more inclusive company. Their success will determine how current and future employees perceive your brand and could directly influence your ability to attract talent in the future.

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