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Diversity, equity and inclusion heads need consistency

I am a black, male, former chief people officer (CPO) in the UK – and the only ever black male CPO in the FTSE 100.

Over the past seven years, I have turned my domain skills in HR, culture change, and lived experiences to work with many of the largest organisations in the UK and globally, progressing their culture through the lens of inclusion with my consulting firm, Caerus Executive.

This effort has seen me work with numerous CEOs, HR directors, heads of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), employee resource groups, and staff of my client organisations.

One thing I have seen time and time again is there is no consistent understanding of the skillset needed to be a successful head of DE&I.

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There is an ecosystem of challenges creating a lack of understanding of what is required as a head of DE&I.

Since the death of George Floyd, many companies have rushed to hire diversity specialists, and the first macro issue they have encountered is that the demand for these roles is far outstripping the supply.

Here, another micro-challenge arises. Given many organisations and HR directors have no prior experience in DE&I, they tend to conflate individuals with a passion for DE&I with individuals who have lived experience of being outside the dominant white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual culture. Both come at the expense of domain expertise.

There are many different views on what is required to be a successful DE&I professional, so I will focus on the one that is the most controversial: in-depth understanding of key HR areas is essential to being effective.

In an overwhelming number of cases, creating an inclusive organisation is a transformative initiative related to an organisation’s culture. Changing the culture requires changing the context of an organisation, and to change the context, you must first understand what levers need to be pulled.

To help a culture become more inclusive, you need to align your leadership competencies and behaviours, recruitment efforts, talent management and reward programmes, overlaid with an understanding of organisational psychology. Combining these requirements with lived experience is a key part of your change management journey, and a recipe for a successful DE&I professional this Black History Month (October).

Organisations need social justice advocates, the voices of those with lived experiences, and those with DE&I domain skills. What they do not need is for CEOs and HRDs to confuse and conflate the three.

Strong opinions, a passion for DE&I, and advocacy are necessary to help right the wrongs of the past, but without domain expertise they will not change organisational culture.

So, when it comes to DE&I, organisations should always ask themselves: are we being informative or transformative?

Safia Boot, an HR specialist at Respect at Work, says it best: “It is rare to find any who have employee relations, HR or line management experience, or legal understanding in the full employee life cycle of recruitment, pay, training, performance, management, grievances and discipline to take an evidence-led approach to how their organisations, policies and everyday practices keep replicating white homogeneity and racial disparities.”

What the world needs now are truly equipped and expert DE&I professionals, coupled with a passion for change.


This article first appeared in the September/October 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk. 

Frank Douglas is a chartered companion of CIPD, CEO of Caerus Executive and 2021 HR Most Influential thinker.