Diversity and Inclusion

Careers Spotlight: What Is a Chief Diversity Officer?

November 15, 2021
March 8, 2024
Lyssa Test
Lattice Team

In recent years, the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) role has become increasingly widespread, as organizations of all sizes have begun to prioritize building an inclusive, equitable, and diverse workplace experience for every employee. One 2019 study from management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates found that 47% of companies in the S&P 500 had a Chief Diversity Officer, with nearly two-thirds of those CDOs having been appointed or promoted to their roles within the three years prior to the study.

While this role is still relatively new to the C-suite, it’s a powerful reminder of a company’s commitment to and investment in building a better work environment for all its employees — regardless of their race, gender, age, culture, sexual orientation, or religion. In this installment of our Careers Spotlight series, we take a closer look at what a Chief Diversity Officer does, why companies need one, and the skills CDOs need to have to successfully shape company culture and build a more equitable and inclusive organization.

What Does a Chief Diversity Officer Do? 

A Chief Diversity Officer (or Chief Inclusion Officer; Diversity and Inclusion Director; or Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as they are sometimes called) is an executive team member in charge of overseeing a company’s overarching diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) strategy. They make sure DE&I is woven into every aspect of the employee lifecycle, from fair hiring practices to fostering a culture in which diverse employees are accepted and valued and receive the recognition they deserve.

The Chief Diversity Officer is also responsible for developing training initiatives on sexual harassment, unconscious bias, disabilities accommodations, microaggressions, and other similarly crucial topics in order to increase internal awareness of and support for equity and inclusion values. At the same time, the CDO must also ensure that the company maintains compliance with laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Equal Pay Act, and more. But that only scratches the surface of a Chief Diversity Officer’s day-to-day responsibilities.

Here are some of the other common responsibilities of a Chief Diversity Officer:

  • Develop and implement the company’s DE&I strategy.
  • Set organization-wide diversity and inclusion goals.
  • Partner with the HR team to attract, retain, and develop diverse talent.
  • Assist in the development and facilitation of diversity workshops and training programs for all employees and People leaders.
  • Work with employee resource groups (ERGs) to develop annual programming and outreach plans, establish goals, create budgets, and drive connections among employees.
  • Build strong relationships with key internal stakeholders and allies, as well as external diversity-related organizations and thought leaders.
  • Ensure compliance with relevant laws and regulations.
  • Be the company’s public face of diversity.
  • Oversee the launch and implementation of diversity and inclusion surveys.
  • Audit internal compensation and promotion practices to ensure equity and fairness.
  • Develop metrics for measuring the effectiveness of DE&I initiatives.

This list will vary by organization depending on a company’s unique DE&I needs, but the Chief Diversity Officer is always the one who sets an organization's overarching diversity and inclusion strategy. This role typically reports directly to the CEO, so they can ensure DE&I is top-of-mind across all departments in the organization, but the role can also report to the Chief People Officer or Head of Recruiting, as most DE&I, HR, and recruiting initiatives will be interconnected.

It’s also important to keep in mind that DE&I improvements don’t happen overnight. A Chief Diversity Officer has the difficult job of measuring DE&I improvements within their organization, while also reminding business leaders and employees that meaningful change takes time. The CDO needs to be patient, optimistic for the future, and goal-oriented to understand the big picture: They are, consistently and over time, building a better employee experience for the company’s current and future employees.

Why Does a Company Need a Chief Diversity Officer? 

The Chief Diversity Officer is a valuable addition to any C-level team, as they help keep the employee experience front and center. Here are a few other ways having a Chief Diversity Officer can benefit your business. Chief Diversity Officers help:

1. Attract diverse talent.

You can’t have a diverse organization without diverse talent. For homogenous companies, a CDO’s first order of business might be auditing the recruitment process to identify where unconscious bias could be impacting hiring practices, and finding ways to build a more diverse talent pipeline.

In this vein, the CDO might spearhead initiatives such as adopting an applicant tracking system (ATS) that can remove candidate names from resumes, switching to standardized interview questions, requiring a diverse hiring slate for every role, partnering with local minority groups and colleges to find applicants, and introducing unconscious bias training for all interview panelists in order to find more diverse job candidates and ensure the hiring process is fair for all applicants. 

2. Retain and develop diverse talent.

Attracting diverse talent is only half of the challenge; the other half is building a psychologically safe workplace where employees from underrepresented groups feel they can thrive, so they’ll remain at your organization long-term and have fulfilling careers there.

By listening to employees, understanding their pain points, and keeping a pulse on company culture, the Chief Diversity Officer can take action to improve the employee experience for diverse talent. Building a more inclusive and equitable company culture and performance management process can help create a workplace that gives employees from underrepresented and marginalized groups the value and recognition they deserve. 

3. Drive innovation.

Diverse companies are more innovative and profitable than more homogenous businesses, according to a study from management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). BCG’s research found that companies with below-average diversity on their management teams reported that innovation drove only 26% of total revenue, while companies with above-average diversity on their management teams reported that 45% of revenue was innovation-driven.

In the past year, we’ve seen how important a company’s ability to pivot and adapt to changing customer behaviors and global issues is. A diverse team can give your business the benefit of multiple points of view and life experiences to pull inspiration from, which can in turn help discover innovative ways to create new products and services, enter new markets, or target new audiences. The alternative — or working with purely homogeneous teams — can maintain the status quo and hold back your company from discovering and pursuing new exploratory ideas.

“Only working with like-minded individuals can inhibit internal communication and disrupt the flow of new ideas, which can create stagnancy that can harm your company's ability to ignite positive change in your industry,” cautioned Tina Hawk, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at employment background check company GoodHire. “Homogeneity in the workplace is a real threat to your ability to innovate. You need as few barriers as possible to ensure that individuals of all backgrounds and skills work together — not just for the betterment of the company, but for the enrichment of your people.”

4. Make DE&I a company-wide priority.

At organizations without a Chief Diversity Officer or DE&I team, diversity, equity, and inclusion work usually falls on an already overburdened HR team, or worse, on marginalized employees who have to fight for these issues on top of their already busy day-to-day responsibilities. While improving DE&I is the main responsibility of a CDO, it’s no easy task, and realistically, it’s impossible for just one person alone to achieve. While the CDO can lead the charge, improving diversity and inclusion must be a company-wide initiative.

Because they have a seat at the executive table, a CDO can take a top-down approach to DE&I by ensuring every department in the organization keeps DE&I top-of-mind and is actively working to build a better workplace for all employees. At the same time, the CDO can also take a bottom-up approach by creating and implementing DE&I training programs for employees and People leaders and supporting employee resource groups. While one-off training programs aren’t enough to change behavior and reshape company culture, increasing employee awareness around inclusion, unconscious bias, and belonging can help staff members understand how they can be allies and play an important part in building a welcoming work environment for all of their colleagues. 

5. Hold the business accountable.

Lastly, the Chief Diversity Officer can hold the entire business accountable and ensure everyone understands the role they play in building a more inclusive organization. Too often, companies make broad, empty diversity and inclusion pledges but rarely follow through on them. This performative allyship sends a strong message to minority employees: Your well-being is not a business priority.

The CDO can keep a pulse on internal diversity and inclusion by tracking employee demographics; measuring the success of initiatives; using employee engagement survey data to find opportunities for improvement; and auditing compensation, performance, and promotion data to reveal if these processes disproportionately benefit — or disadvantage — certain groups of employees over others. Some companies, like Google and LinkedIn, have even gone so far as to release their internal or external diversity reports to hold themselves accountable; track changes in DE&I over time; and share with employees, customers, and partners the extent to which they’re delivering on their DE&I promises. 

How to Become a Chief Diversity Officer

Since Chief Diversity Officer is a relatively new addition to the C-suite, there’s no traditional background that individuals vying for this role must, or should, have. That said, all Chief Diversity Officers should have experience, or at the very least a passion for, establishing and leading diversity and inclusion strategies and programs. On top of that, CDOs should have around 5-10 years of executive or senior leadership experience on their resumes. While not required, many Chief Diversity Officers tend to have a background in HR and compliance, as professionals in these types of roles usually have experience overseeing People programming and DE&I-related initiatives. 

As for skills, a successful CDO should be data-driven, passionate about people and culture, and comfortable with public speaking. They should also be a strong communicator, a gifted manager, and an experienced leader. Again, this role has only recently come into the spotlight, so there is no typical background for a Chief Diversity Officer. If you’re considering applying for the role or dreaming of becoming a CDO one day, don’t get caught up on whether you match the job description’s listed requirements exactly. Instead, be confident in the unique skillsets, perspectives, and experience you bring to the table — your own diversity of thought might help you approach DE&I differently and more effectively than someone else.

While the Chief Diversity Officer is a strong ally to have in the fight to build a more equitable and inclusive organization, you don’t have to wait to hire one to make diversity and inclusion a top priority for your business. You can start today by auditing your performance management process and ensuring that every employee has a fair shot at success within your company.

Download our new eBook HR's Guide to Making Performance Management More Equitable for a step-by-step process you can follow to increase the equity of your performance reviews. You’ll learn how fair and objective your processes really are — and how to make sure that each of your employees has an equal opportunity to succeed at your organization.