As I&D Leaders’ Roles Expand, They Can Lead with Inclusion

There’s no denying that the scope, role, and importance of the modern inclusion and diversity (I&D) officer has expanded significantly over the past three years.

The civil unrest and public outcry for societal change following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 galvanized many companies to strengthen their focus on inclusion and diversity, including hiring C-suite leaders to oversee this function. As a result, 71 percent of S&P companies now have a senior I&D officer, with 91 percent appointed since February 2021. LinkedIn data also shows that there has been a 71 percent increase worldwide in all I&D roles over the last five years, and the number of Chief Diversity Officers hired between 2015 and 2020 grew by 107 percent.

This progress is essential and commendable, but organizations still have work to do to create thriving I&D cultures, as recent events have expanded the function’s focus. That means I&D leaders need to leverage proven strategies, larger teams, and adequate budgets to address their growing mandate.

The Scope of I&D Is Quickly Evolving and Widening

I&D leaders face an ever-widening set of responsibilities due to recent events and the fast pace of business growth.

Hybrid and remote work have opened the door to new opportunities. Employers can more easily access a global workforce, while employees gain newfound flexibility in where, how, and when they work. That means developing programs that include workers from different cultures, time zones, and more.

In addition, legislative changes, social unrest, and geopolitical threats have created a confusing welter of issues for I&D professionals to navigate. From the overturn of Roe v. Wade to work disputes to the Ukraine conflict, the broader environment is constantly changing, yet the need for inclusion and diversity in the workplace remain ever-present.

Amidst all these changes, organizations need their I&D leaders to help them build inclusive company cultures and operational policies now more than ever.

Inclusion Is the New DEI 

Why focus on inclusion? Inclusion is the new DEI because, if done well, it accomplishes all three goals. When organizations build a culture that reflects their communities and customers, they are actively working to be more inclusive of the people that support their business and become more diverse as a result. Additionally, by offering opportunities and defined career paths to a wide range of workers, these cultures become more equitable.

So, how can organizations embrace inclusion and make it a dynamic and visible part of their company cultures?

Make a lasting commitment to I&D

I&D becomes a driver of business value when it is elevated to the strategic agenda. There’s good news in that regard. Nearly nine in 10 companies have an I&D strategy and nearly eight in 10 have made plans to raise the I&D budget in 2022. For some companies, that means an annual budget of $7 million to $10 million, though some report spending hundreds of millions on this priority.

However, since only 43 percent of organizations have a dedicated function and budget, the rest will likely want to establish an I&D function to make sustained progress. Not only do I&D programs attract great talent, but they also help accomplish business goals, such as increasing innovation and profitability.

Create a more diverse talent pipeline

Organizations can adopt multiple measures to build the diverse workforce they need to succeed. For example, HR teams can write more inclusive job descriptions, be proactive in recruiting talent and recruit more broadly, create diverse candidate referral programs, and use artificial intelligence (AI) assistance to help review applications.

Building a recruitment program that is bias-free and culturally competent can help organizations recruit diverse talent. I&D and HR teams can also target diverse channels to access underrepresented populations. One example is holding career days and interviews at historically black colleges and universities (HCBUs) to encourage students to apply for jobs at their organizations. Other examples include having multiple pathways to employment such as providing easily accessible, no-cost training on technology systems; creating strong internship programs; and offering apprentice or associate positions where staff can learn on the job.

Build a brand as an I&D leader

Leaders that want to build inclusive and diverse workforces typically assess their cultures for strengths and gaps, create three-year strategies, and ensure that new programs target all areas of the organization. As part of this effort, it’s often useful for teams to audit Glassdoor reviews to see what applicants and employees say about the organizational culture and use this information to evolve programs.

Organizations should also leverage grassroots I&D programming such as employee resource groups (ERGs), mentor pairing, and training programs to create a greater sense of inclusion company-wide. More than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies offer ERGs, which are voluntary employee groups that create a safe space for individuals to meet and discuss their needs and concerns and act as a conduit for reporting back to management. ERGs help build trust in organizations and their policies, especially if leaders are responsive to making changes that address employee issues.

Similarly, providing mentoring and training ensures that staff members are able to gain access to the educational insights and upskilling resources they need to succeed on the job and elevate their role in the company.  

Speak with one voice

I&D leaders work with other executives across HR, communications, legal, and more to craft company I&D messaging. Currently, only 13 percent of CEOs are publicly proactive and visible in sharing their support for I&D in the marketplace. This is a missed opportunity. Senior leaders can use I&D talking points to guide communications with customers, partners, employees, and more. By so doing, they can build their organization’s brand for I&D in the marketplace. Employees feel pride when they see their leaders and organizations stand up for issues that matter to them, such as legislative changes, social issues like LGBTQ rights, and more.

Create a sense of belonging

Organizations that offer inclusive programs and policies and communicate diversity as a source of strength help create a strong sense of belonging in workers. According to research, creating a sense of belonging for employees can lead to a 56 percent increase in job performance, a 50 percent reduction in turnover risk, a 167 percent increase in employer net promoter score, and a 75 percent decrease in sick days.

To make sure this is a lived reality for all staff, I&D and HR teams can make sure corporate values include I&D goals and provide guidance on key behaviors to model on the job. For example, soliciting opinions from all participants in small meetings can ensure that everyone’s perspectives are considered. In addition, organizations can offer multiple ways for employees to provide feedback and reflect back to staff on how this input was used to evolve programs.

Retain I&D Leaders to Grow Functions Amidst Business Volatility

It’s an exciting but challenging time for I&D executives in the industry today. They’ve gained a seat at the C-suite table, but now face an ever-growing set of responsibilities. Business growth is accelerating, global workforces are becoming more diverse every day, and geopolitical and social volatility may be the new normal for some time to come. This puts into context the sobering fact that the average tenure for an I&D leader in 2021 was only 1.8 years, according to studies.

By publicly making a lasting commitment to I&D, creating a more diverse pipeline, building a strong inclusive brand in the marketplace, speaking with one voice, and creating a sense of belonging, organizations can create I&D cultures where all can thrive and contribute to achieving business goals.

That’s a goal the C-suite can easily support. 

Dr. Shirley Knowles is Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Progress.