Complex Challenges are Ahead for Chief Diversity Officers (i4cp login required)

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Chief diversity officers (CDOs) have seen increased scrutiny of their function in the last year, particularly in the U.S. Driven in large part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision to effectively end affirmative action in college admissions (SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. UNC), private organizations not targeted by that decision are increasingly assessing the implications and potential legal risks of their practices and programs.

That, in addition to various state legislation, proposed legislation, and political rhetoric hostile to DE&I efforts in advance of the 2024 U.S. election cycle have largely shaped the top four list of 2024 priorities for members of  i4cp’s Chief Diversity Officer Board. They are:

  1. Strengthening DE&I strategies to ensure alignment to business goals—from global talent needs to helping guide leaders as they navigate workforce divisiveness and geopolitical challenges.
  2. Fostering inclusion for all, starting with emphasis and ongoing education on inclusive leadership.
  3. Building more inclusive and collaborative cultures by ensuring psychological safety throughout the employee experience.
  4. Expanding tools and resources to enable and support accountability for DE&I initiatives enterprise wide.

Ensuring that organizations follow through on pledges made in 2020 to advance diversity, equity, inclusion—particularly in view of the current challenges in the U.S. legal and political environment—is a chief concern among CDOs. How to address anti-DE&I rhetoric and potential legal challenges to DE&I work is a formidable, complex question. Everything from diverse slates and hiring, promotions, and representation seems to suddenly be under a microscope.

In response, CDOs are wisely reviewing practices and frameworks for mentoring and sponsorship, employee groups (ERGs/BRGs), vendor diversity programs, college recruiting, and more to ensure there are no potential risks to current activities. This involves auditing practices and programs to ensure that talent decisions and participation requirements are not exclusive to or based on race, gender, or similar demographic identity criteria or goals.

CDOs are also working to make their DE&I strategies more resilient and sustainable. Greater data rigor and clear, decisive communication will be essential for DE&I leaders to help reduce the chilling effect of opposition litigation on specific aspects of organizational culture.

Ensuring alignment with business goals, strengthened by data on the impact on business objectives is also a priority, as is ensuring inclusion for all, starting with emphasis and training on inclusive leadership and building collaborative cultures.

Many CDOs already have inclusive leadership goals and programs in place and are strengthening their organizations’ sense of community and psychological safety. They are also focused on data and analytics to inform key priorities, align to business outcomes, demonstrate impact, and surmount detractors.

When considering the 2024 U.S. election cycle, CDOs are ramping up communications about respectful and civil exchanges in the workplace, along with expectations of professionalism and team cohesion. They are also investing in empathy building, sharing employee stories, and keeping interpersonal connections strong both virtually and in-person. This culture work is equally vital beyond the U.S., as global conflicts – such as the Israel-Hamas war – threaten to deepen political and cultural divides that can overflow into the workplace.

In summary, most CDOs are expecting continued scrutiny/attacks on DE&I, ESG, and associated work in the foreseeable future. This signals a continuing need to grow effective influencing skills, to sew DE&I into the fabric of the organization, for strong data tied to business objectives, and clear communication of the business impact DE&I work has on the bottom line and future sustainability of the organization.

How the function is using GenAI

GenAI has broad implications for DE&I work, representing challenges as well as opportunities. CDOs report that GenAI is being adopted in the function for identifying bias in career portal content, job descriptions, and hiring. It is also used to analyze employee data to identify demographic groups that may be adversely impacted by internal and external events (and how that could manifest), developing training programs to promote DE&I, drafting inclusive communications and messaging, and creating DE&I action plans based on organizational documents. For more, see i4cp’s The Role of Diversity in Mitigating AI Biases.

Chief Diversity Officer Predictions

  • Actions will speak more loudly than words; there will be less reliance on public statements and gestures in support of diversity and inclusion. Instead, organizations will favor more strategic engagement and decisive, demonstrable actions to sustain inclusive cultures.
  • Scrutiny of DE&I programs and initiatives will continue and probably intensify. While shifting demographics and markets worldwide make DE&I work even more critical, CDOs nevertheless anticipate continued pressure, scrutiny, risk of legal challenges, and even attacks on their function, including ESG efforts and associated work.
  • Cross-functional collaboration will increase (e.g., between DE&I and talent acquisition) and business units as leaders combine efforts to work toward meeting representation goals, de-bias existing systems, move forward on parity goals, refine recruitment activities for maximum impact, and invest in diverse sourcing.
  • Leading with DE&I and ESG data tied to business objectives will be more common, as will clear communication of the business impact DE&I work has on the bottom line and future sustainability of the organization.

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