Why Turnover is So High for DEI Leaders, And What to Do About It

By Leah Fessler

This year, we've thought a lot about essential workers — considering whose jobs determine our survival, and whose do not. For diversity, equity, and inclusion executives, this conversation is at the heart of their struggle to create lasting change.

Despite high demand, the role of Chief Diversity Officer is often marked by a revolving door.

"U.S. companies are rushing to hire chief diversity officers or elevate existing leaders to the position in the midst of pressure to address racial divisions and inequities within their organizations," write Chip Cutter and Lauren Webber in The Wall Street Journal. "[But] the role has long been marked by high turnover, with many in the position, known as CDO, leaving over a lack of resources, unrealistic expectations and inadequate support from senior executives."

To understand why churn in CDO roles is so common, you must realize that at most organizations, diversity, equity, and inclusion are not viewed as essential business functions, as Chief Members Maja Hazell, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at White & Case LP, and Sofia Pertuz, PhD, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the Jed Foundation explain.

"DEI work seems to need constant justification because the metrics and measure of success is not always clear," says Pertuz. "Belongingness is a feeling that can increase employee engagement and their contributions to the workplace, but there are no easy ways to make direct connections."

"Many companies don't understand what's required to make diversity and inclusion initiatives successful because they don't properly view them as strategic change management initiatives that impact every area of the business and the bottom line," Hazell adds. "They are viewed as siloed, human resources concerns and treated accordingly. Many DEI leaders are set up for failure due to a fundamental misunderstanding of their necessary role."

Coronavirus has shown us that society's most essential workers — our grocery store clerks, delivery people, nurses, transit workers — often receive the least spotlight and structural support. Such is the case in the corporate workplace, too. There may not be KPIs to numerically document how much an employee's sense of inclusion amplifies her work products, but the effect will be clear as day when she leaves because she does not feel seen — damaging both your bottom line and your reputation.

Improving success conditions for CDOs requires recognizing why these individuals chose this career in the first place. "For many of us DEI professionals, this is not just a job, it's not just a nine-to-five," says Pertuz. "The work we do is more of a calling. It's tied to a much greater purpose of making the world a better place for humanity." The highly personal, emotionally intense nature of this work can result in CDOs becoming demoralized when buy-in is not prevalent across all organizational levels, says Pertuz.

"When leader buy-in is missing, it can feel like you're trying to boil the ocean, and you question whether you can make a real difference," Hazell adds.

Today, CDOs' personal connection to their mission can make their work even more challenging. "The truth is that these two pandemics — a health crisis and racial injustice — disproportionality impact Black and Brown communities, the very same people who lead DEI efforts," says Karina Cabrera Bell, Founding and Managing Partner of OpenAccess, a boutique talent strategy firm helping companies build inclusive workplaces. "As you can imagine, this all leads to burnout for DEI leaders."

On the flip side, personal connection to DEI is often what makes the work so rewarding.

"The element of my work that has the most positive influence on keeping me is the entry-level and line employees who often see my work as providing them with a voice when they don’t feel they have one," says Pertuz. "I especially appreciate bringing together various generations who may have different views and mindsets about DEI. This is one of those areas where expertise can come from entry-level employees who bring insight to the work that more experienced employees can learn from and appreciate." (As we've previously written, such reverse mentorship is particularly important as the nation focuses on centuries-old systemic racism.)

For Hazell, the most meaningful and motivating moments come when coworkers have "a-ha" moments, changing their behavior to benefit others at work and beyond. "It inspires me to see people effectively connect across differences, and the workplace is often one of the least racially segregated spaces — at least across professional levels — that most people occupy for great lengths of time, so I think real change is possible," she says.

To better support DEI leaders and their work, fellow leaders can take immediate action. First and foremost: money. "Not providing a budget or staff and thinking that DEI can be 'fix' to racism in the short term is a receipt for failure," says Cabrera Bell.

Next, speak up. "While there are other senior leadership positions that seem to be obviously essential to the organization, DEI work is not always perceived that way," says Pertuz. "So it is important that executives lend as much support as possible by being vocal about the commitment to DEI as an organization."

Emphasizing your DEI commitment to once a year or in moments of crisis is not enough. Leaders need to vocalize the value of DEI on a regular basis, across all departments. "Being a CDO is a constant balancing act, trying to determine when to push versus allowing individuals to figure things out on their own journey," says Hazell. When other leaders speak up, it takes pressure off the CDO to be the loudest voice championing their own work.

Lastly, the CDO needs to report to the CEO. This reporting structure is key to communicating that DEI is part of the core business strategy, says Cabrera Bell, also noting that "DEI leaders should give executive updates just as their peers do on other important initiatives." Reporting to the CEO also helps ensure that the CDO will not be siloed in compliance issues, recruiting, or company image, as can happen when they're reporting to the General Counsel, Head of Human Resources, or CMO, respectively.

On a personal level, every employee should be doing their homework to better understand the pain points minority groups experience at their organization. "Offer your suggestions on how you can help the organization meet its DEI strategic goals," says Hazell. "More importantly, ask for feedback on whether your suggestions make sense, or if the diversity leaders could use your unique contribution in another way."

Originally Published: August 31, 2020