Why are chief diversity officers often set up to fail?

'There's just a lot of folks that are under-resourced, under-supported, underfunded'

Why are chief diversity officers often set up to fail?

In looking at the news this weekend, when 13 people were shot down in a racist attack in Buffalo, all the efforts that have ramped up around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) can seem questionable.

“You pause and you go, ‘Is what I'm doing meaningful? Or is it making an actual change?’” says Sartaj Sarkaria, chief diversity officer at the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) in Toronto.

“That's where organizations really have a role to play to say, ‘What you are doing is positive and it's making a change. And while it might seem small to one person, it’s going to be super meaningful and it's going to really resonate with them,” she says.

“We can't affect everyone, but you want to work towards what you can do and make the changes you can and, hopefully, they'll snowball and roll into a bigger change.”

There has been plenty of talk from organizations about the importance of workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and a new survey finds that many businesses are implementing comprehensive strategic plans around this.

Under-resourced, underfunded

Despite this optimistic outlook, many CDOs are having a rough time, says Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Feminuity in Toronto.

“There's just a lot of folks that are under-resourced, under-supported, underfunded,” she says. “They're very much brought in to solve all of the organization's problems, and to do that in 12 months with a limited budget. Frankly, they're exhausted, and a lot of folks are finding that there's high turnover in these roles.”

Disappointing results in the DEI space can’t help. A recent report from the Kapor Centre and NAACP looking at the representation of Black people in the U.S. tech sector, for example, finds that there have been zero gains, and even some regression, says Saska.

“[Despite] all these huge grand promises from big tech and Silicon Valley, nothing has actualized or come to fruition. There's a giant gap between organizations’ big PR statements and commitments, and where the rubber hits the road and getting the job done.”

Why? A big reason is not knowing what this field of practice looks like, not getting the right people in those positions, and not equipping and empowering these people with the funding and proper teams and real influence and power, she says.

You have to ask if employers are hiring to really make a change, says Vivian Acquah, a DEI coach, consultant and strategist based in Amsterdam.

“Are they hiring just to think that this person will be Olivia Pope or… to be Harry Potter that will magically remove all the challenges and all the barriers that the company is facing?”

A recent study found that microaggressions actually increase levels of burnout and contribute to a growing unhappiness within the workplace, especially for Black employees.

Becoming a CDO

Having held leadership roles in HR and governance roles at the CMA since 2017, Sarkaria — who is also the acting chief operating officer and chief of staffing — knew that becoming the chief diversity officer (CDO) in early 2021 was a natural fit.

“I just spent a lot of my earlier career navigating boardrooms, and a lot of the time you spend wondering, ‘Do I really belong here, do I really fit in?’”

Having grown up in rural Ontario, Sarkaria didn’t have lot of people to look up to that looked like her or helped her navigate her career, she says.

“I was the only minority in my whole high school to try and figure out how to speak up in those moments. So when this [position] came along, I thought, ‘This is really a good opportunity for me to lean into this.’”

The marketing community in Canada was also “really intentionally” working on making people feel a sense of belonging, plus many employers have come to appreciate the importance and value of DEI in the workplace, says Sarkaria.

“We know that it brings in profits and it can help with conversations at the table, but it also helps consumers relate more strongly to the brands when there's diverse voices at the table.”

Recently, Canadian HR Reporter unveiled the Leading Diversity and Inclusion employers for 2022.

Defining the scope

But Sarkaria knows well the challenges of the role of a CDO. To that end, she first sat down with the association’s former CEO to hash out the direction of the role, along with the organization’s goals and values. That meant she got to shape the role herself.

“Obviously, it was a new role within the organization so I had to define it, put some guardrails up of what we wanted to do, which direction we wanted to go in, what our scope was,” she says.

That’s important because the scope for a CDO can be “gigantic” so it’s important to narrow that down, says Sarkaria.

“When I was able to carve out this role, I was able to do that from the get-go, to really define what that scope was and what we saw as success.”

The CMA recently launched a program to increase the representation of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) and newcomer communities within the field of marketing through mentorship opportunities.

Organizations often have huge expectations of a newly hired CDO, who really needs the support of a team, says Saska.

“It needs to be meshed into the DNA of a business, which means that you need every executive, every department and area of expertise also adopting that DEI mindset and applying it to their effort. I think that's a huge piece.”

In addition, many CEOs lack significant decision-making power, she says. “There's no empowered right to actually make the moves that they need to.”

“At a really foundational level, there's just a lot of unknown about: What should a CDO or related role actually do? What are the skill sets? What are the areas of expertise? What should they be focusing on? I think a lot of organizations aren't clear. And they tend to still ladder that under HR people leadership-related stuff.”

Having an appropriate budget is another big issue, says Acquah.

“It is essential before chief diversity officers sign or say yes to the job that they ask particular questions…: ‘What is the budget? Who's going to work on my team? For how many people am I supposed to be responsible for?’” she says.

“What I see is people are bringing in a hire for 200-plus employees, and then they are looked upon like, ‘Well, we have a chief diversity officer now — fix it, fix it, fix that.’”

Knowing the skills required

One of the bigger challenges is the skill set a CDO is expected to carry, which is quite unique, says Sarkaria.

“You're expected to be able to do change management and strategy development and build those bridges and have those difficult conversations. And it's not for everybody,” she says.

“You do see people get promoted into these positions or get hired on and… the on ramping for a role like this is long, because you have to figure out how everything works and those levers that you can and cannot pull and how you can get to the objectives that you're trying to reach. So I think the challenge is just being that fully rounded person to be able to navigate this world.”

A lot of organizations have looked at the role in a reactionary, knee-jerk manner, and they haven't built out long-term budgets or really thought about the type of CDO that they might even need, says Saska.

“Are they trying to make their product more accessible? Are they trying to double down on recruitment? Or are they really looking to build a fulsome strategy? Those are all different skill sets and require different types of chief diversity officers with different sort of backgrounds.”

Sometimes, people are promoted from within and “tokenized,” she says.

“They'll say, ‘OK, where's the most senior racialized person or most senior woman who comes closest to this role? Let’s promote them into this role’ — even if they don't have any expertise or background… so you're setting that person up to fail, ultimately, and that's tough on people.”

CIBC faced backlash recently after a job application it posted for Indigenous candidates came to light — but the story serves as a reminder of the complexities around Indigenous recruitment.

As for whether life experience is a necessity for the role, that’s a tricky question, says Sarkaria. For someone who has faced challenges herself, along with her parents, the role of CDO may be more “instinctual,” but even someone without that life experience can still be successful, she says.

“I think life experience helps but I don't think it's essential. And I think that for people who are successful in this that might not have the life experience, it probably means that they are an incredibly open and caring person who wants to really learn and lean into that… trying to understand how things happened or why this made you feel that way or things like that.”

A lived experience is important but it's not that everybody needs to have a sob story, says Acquah.

“I do feel like if somebody, a white man, is wanting to become a CDO, there needs to be a why, and that why needs to be transparent. If this person is doing it because they are gay and they were excluded, if this person is doing it because they want to prevent their daughter from being racially profiled, because their daughter is maybe half-black, half-white, the more the merrier. I want to learn more about the why before I judge because I cannot judge… I don't know what motivated them to take upon the role.”

Reasonable expectations

Another challenge? Many of the goals for DEI are long term, but people are looking for short-term gains, says Sarkaria.

“When you have some quick wins, people are really keen to keep going. But when those wins get drawn out, the challenges and the stresses become more and more. So I think you have to have the right people in place, obviously, and then have the commitment from those people to continue with those long-term goals and just chip away at them.”

That’s why it’s important to celebrate the wins when they happen, because “it does feel like a mountain to climb at times, and it does feel like you can’t quite see the peak,” she says.

Often organizations only allow for a six-month or one-year runway when it comes to DEI efforts, says Saska.

“You wouldn't hire an executive-level position and only have a year to budget,” she says. “And then the [DEI] industry as a whole is really struggling to figure out how to develop proper measurement and metrics for evaluation. So there's this big gap in terms of how to even quantify or measure the impact.”


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