A Comprehensive Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Leadership


Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is becoming more and more common as the general public gains awareness of the benefits of diversity. And as organizations begin to implement diversity initiatives, they often find they need a leader to guide them in the right direction. 

Some companies choose to devote an entire role to DEI leadership. This individual is often referred to as a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO). According to a study conducted by Russell Reynolds, an executive search and leadership advisory firm, demand for CDOs has seen a huge spike over the past three years, and that number is only expected to increase. 

If the company can afford it, hiring a CDO is one of the best ways to implement effective, sustainable DEI initiatives. But for the companies that can’t, there are still ways to prioritize DEI leadership–they just might require a little more digging. 

The Qualities of a DEI Leader

It should go without saying that a DEI leader should be familiar with the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. They should also have the soft skills necessary to communicate any changes or new initiatives to staff with empathy and care. 

The most obvious place to look for someone to help your company implement DEI initiatives is the HR department. HR professionals are already trained in effective communication, and they will likely require less oversight from you to implement any changes. 

However, just because someone works in HR doesn’t make them fit to be a DEI leader. If your HR representative doesn’t have firsthand experience with discrimination in the workplace, they will not be able to truly understand the importance of DEI initiatives. Additionally, staff may be less receptive to the message if they know the person creating the initiatives isn’t basing them on real-world experience. 

Outside of HR, you may want to look to any other leadership roles in your staff. If your employees in managerial roles are performing their job well, they most likely already show signs of effective leadership, like empathy, decision-making and organization. These are the same skills that are required of a DEI leader, and if your staff is willing, there’s no reason they can’t help implement changes to make your organization more inclusive to all. 

Most importantly, no amount of initiatives or changes will make a real difference unless all leadership, especially those at the very top, are fully committed to DEI. Employees are much more likely to change their behavior if they believe the reason behind the change is authentic. 

So instead of searching for a DEI leader or hiring someone new, you may need to start with a real commitment from your entire leadership team to make diversity, equity and inclusion a priority. If your leadership staff is responsive, you may find you have multiple DEI leaders already in your midst. And if not, you may want to revamp your leadership team altogether. 

DEI Leadership is a Need, Not a Want

DEI initiatives not only attract a more diverse talent pool but are linked to higher employee retention and the overall success of the business. 

Juliette McClendon is a clinical psychologist, 2020 Health Disparities Research Institute Scholar with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and director of medical affairs at Big Health. She told Very Well Mind that DEI initiatives are directly correlated to mental health. 

“We know that feelings of belonging and mental health are linked—research shows that anxiety, depression, and even suicide are linked to one’s sense of belonging,” McClendon said. “When companies really dedicate themselves to diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) work that actually creates an inclusive, psychologically safe environment for everyone, it communicates to employees that their employer cares about them.”

The onus of implementing DEI is on the employer, and implementing DEI initiatives requires more than just writing a statement to the press or hiring a CDO. This is the case now more than ever–as DEI becomes more popular, many companies are stating the importance of diversity in their companies without actually doing anything about it. And employees are noticing. 

In BioSpace’s 2022 Diversity in Life Sciences: Current Perspectives report, 

White respondents were 5% more likely to agree with statements that related to their inclusion, while people of color were 9% less likely to agree with the same statements. And from 2020 to 2022, there was an 8% decrease in the belief that executive leadership supported diversity and inclusion initiatives.

This data is a stark contrast to the responses from employers in the same report. Almost all organizations included in the report stated that attracting, recruiting and promoting diverse talent are priorities for their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs.

Clearly, there’s a disconnect. And the only thing that can bridge that DEI gap is action. So, when you’re thinking about how DEI can be implemented in your organization, make sure you have a plan with clear steps to get your company on the right track. 

Above all, be willing to listen. If you have fostered a sense of community and inclusion, your staff should feel comfortable telling you how your DEI initiatives are going and what changes you can make to be better. And after you listen, take action. 

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