Diversity Consultant

By Martha Frase-Blunt Jun 1, 2004
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HR Magazine, June 2004 Shop around to find the right fit for your company's unique culture.

Candi Castleberry-Singleton, director of global inclusion and diversity at Sun Microsystems, is shopping for a consulting group to develop educational interventions in multicultural awareness and change management for the Menlo Park, Calif.-based computer systems giant. “I need someone who understands how to connect a diversity or inclusion strategy to the production line, recognizing that human resources is just one stop along the way,” she says.

Castleberry-Singleton notes that her background is in sales, not HR, “so I need to fill in with experiences and skills I don’t already have.” Advancing diversity in the workplace is complex and continually evolving, so practitioners often call in outside resources to fill expertise gaps.

Diversity consultants can be deployed successfully in companies large and small, in organizations with sizable diversity functions or with none at all. They can be drawn from large consulting practices or chosen as specialized independent contractors.

“Diversity officers don’t necessarily come out of any diversity discipline; they often have backgrounds in HR or management,” says Christopher Metzler, director of the Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Studies program at Cornell University. “Consultants can essentially coach in-house diversity professionals through unique projects or unfamiliar situations.”

Toni Riccardi, chief diversity officer for PricewaterhouseCoopers in the United States, frequently pulls in diversity consultants to augment her own skills and knowledge base. “For instance, when I first took this role, it had been a while since we’d done an organizational assessment on where we are in terms of diversity,” says Riccardi, who is based in the public accounting firm’s Chicago offices.

Riccardi contracted with Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization focusing on women in business, to conduct focus groups and surveys. “They are not a diversity consultancy per se,” Riccardi says, “but they have 30 years of experience in work/life issues, and we chose them because they are the best-in-class and had great benchmarking capability. We combined our expertise and together developed strategies for moving forward.”

You can bring in diversity consultants for anything from a simple half-day training session to development of large-scale initiatives. Projects might include setting up corporate diversity councils or affinity groups, conducting executive development programs, running focus groups, launching community relations activities or consulting on recruitment strategies.

“The field of diversity is so vast, no one in-house person can be an expert in everything,” says diversity consultant Jessica Gilbert, principal of Inclusivity International in Rockville, Md. She specializes in small and medium-size projects, often with a global dimension. “I market to diversity departments primarily,” she says. “I can do the back-end work—research, benchmarking, toolkits, competency models, program development— and do it quickly, which frees the diversity officer to handle the relationship-building.”

For example, Gilbert recently helped a chief diversity officer prepare a presentation for the parent company in Europe on moving diversity initiatives overseas. She researched and reported on best diversity practices of other European companies, as well as on emerging pan-European diversity issues.

“I have a colleague who works specifically on religious diversity issues, and others have equally distinctive competencies,” Gilbert notes. “We consultants tend to be very collegial, referring each other for projects that align with our specific talents.”

Finding the Right Stuff

If you’re convinced that you need a diversity consultant, you’ll want to make that selection carefully, experts say. As with any consultant, you must make sure that your choice has the skills, experience and philosophy your organization needs to meet its diversity goals. Because costs can vary widely, forging a specific yet flexible contract will help ensure success.

In many ways, picking a diversity consultant is like picking any other type of consultant, says Riccardi. “It begins with an initial conversation and an assessment of what they can offer. Does it appear they have a product, knowledge and results I might be interested in? Have they done anything in my industry?” (See “Core Competencies for Diversity Consultants.”)

But the diversity field is bursting with practitioners these days, so making the right choice can be the most challenging aspect of an entire project. It’s also the most important part of the process, and it raises some questions. Should you go with an agency or an independent contractor? How can you tell who has the right stuff ? For example, agencies might be able to field a wider variety of experience, but an independent consultant might be willing to take on smaller projects and offer more personal attention at lower cost.

One resource for locating consultants is their own professional organization, the Diversity Leadership Forum. But in the large yet close-knit diversity community, word-of-mouth and referrals are the most common sourcing methods.

“I tend to talk to people at companies I admire and ask them for recommendations,” says Riccardi. “Then I try and do a testdrive.” When she recently contracted for diversity training, “I had the consultant I was looking at, Novations/J. Howard & Associates, do a pilot program to make sure it would fit within our culture.”

Castleberry-Singleton also consults peers for advice. “There are so many people in this arena, my best option is to go with someone who comes recommended,” she says. In citing resources, both she and Riccardi note The Conference Board, a New York-based business research organization whose members are mainly senior executives. The Conference Board hosts several diversity councils that hold frequent meetings and symposiums, and its web site offers consultant referrals. “Conferences are a good way to experience a smorgasbord of talent, as well as meet employers who are talking about their experiences,” says Riccardi.

Because Cornell has the only credentialing program in the field—the curriculum includes an exam and a two-year refresher, Metzler says—networking has become a useful way to find diversity consultants.

The diversity consultants you’ll encounter are likely to have a variety of backgrounds and draw on their corporate experiences.

“Often they come from the fields of HR, training or organizational development,” says Metzler. “But they could be lawyers or have a background in social justice.”

Gilbert, for example, has a master’s degree in international communications. A diversity consultant’s race, gender and cultural background are not important, Metzler says. “A substantial number [of diversity consultants] are women and racial minorities, but a growing portion comes from the majority populations,” he says. “This is happening as the concept of diversity has moved from that of protected groups to that of organizational development.”

Philosophy And Experience Count

Typically, HR and the firm’s diversity leadership work together in selecting a diversity consultant. But before beginning, they should ensure that the company has formulated its own definition of diversity that aligns with the corporate culture, and they should be able to articulate this clearly to consultant candidates. They should ask consultants to do so as well.

“You need to know right off, what is their diversity philosophy?” says Riccardi. “Is it grounded in business results? Or is it too black-and-white, right-or-wrong?”

Robin Crawford, diversity programs manager for WellPoint Health Networks in Atlanta, the nation’s second-largest health insurance provider, notes that “Diversity initiatives can be very complex endeavors. So they need to be tied to your business goals. The simplistic approach of ‘Let’s all get along’ can be a hard sell to businesspeople.”

WellPoint, which recently became the parent company of four Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, is now faced with a conglomeration of cultures. Crawford selected the Atlanta firm of Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training to create a unified approach to diversity through training and a strategic plan. “They are taking us through the entire process, beginning with creating our own definition of diversity, with a very businessoriented approach,” says Crawford. “They tie their methodology back to our business goals.”

Crawford recommends watching a potential consultant in action. “Sit in on a class, review the materials, find out who you’ll be working with and make sure you are comfortable with them.” But above all, “Make sure the firm or individual you hire understands where your organization is on the diversity continuum.”

HR should also probe the consultant candidate about his or her body of work. “Try searching the diversity literature and asking about conferences they have addressed or seminars they have given,” suggests Metzler. “What have they contributed to the scholarship? Also, ask them about specific successes they have achieved, as well as situations that were not so successful. Their experience doesn’t have to be identical to your needs, but it should be in the same category.” And always check references, he adds.

Consultants should also have a good grasp of legal issues, especially in the areas of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action issues, says Lisa Harpe, an industrial psychologist and senior consultant with PeopleClick Research Institute in Raleigh, N.C., which provides diversity consulting to clients nationwide.

Unfortunately, consultant candidates may not be able to offer specific measurements of their achievements, Harpe says. “Lack of metrics is at the heart of the deficiencies in the diversity arena.”

Since company goals vary so widely, there are few standards in assessing the success of a diversity initiative. “So be wary of someone presenting off-theshelf metrics,” Harpe says. “The consultant needs to be willing to work with you to develop your own measures of success that align with your unique objectives.”

When selecting a consultant, watch for signs that the person might not be right for your needs. Riccardi says she is turned off by consultants who can’t seem to translate diversity into business results and by those who can’t be budged from their complicated process or tool. “It’s an uphill battle when a consultant brings in something off-the-shelf,” she says. “Diversity has to be integrated, not bolted on.”

She recalls one incident in which a consultant came in to help design a measurement tool. “The model he came up with was complex and inflexible, so in the end it was abandoned. We need simple, sustainable interventions.”

Metzler warns, “If the first thing a consultant wants to do is training, that’s a major red flag. There are so many innovative and effective interventions out there, a reliance on training could signal a lack of current industry awareness.” And having a long list of clients, especially for an independent contractor, could signal a lack of repeat business, he adds.

Arrangements And Expectations

Terms of engagement will vary widely by project, as will fees, says Metzler. “A wholesale intervention—one in which the organization conducts an enterprisewide assessment, shares the results with the organization, plots strategy, does organizationwide education and training, and looks at changing its systems, practices, policies and procedures holistically—may take two to four years. A simple project, like revitalizing a diversity council or conducting an executive briefing, can be managed in a few days.”

Costs can range from $10,000 to more than $2 million. Some consultants will offer a flat fee, others a monthly retainer, but the most common approach is an hourly rate, ranging from $100 to more than $300. The contract for a diversity adviser will be similar to that of other consultants and will include length of term, specificity of assignment, payment terms, and who is responsible for expenses and insurance. It may also include nondisclosure and noncompete clauses, as well as termination provisions for both sides. “The hiring company should set the terms and allow the consultant to negotiate, and the contract must be flexible enough to allow changes during the assignment,” Metzler says. But can a contract guarantee results? “Some do, to a limited extent,” says Riccardi. Her training consultants, Novations/J. Howard & Associates, “do this on occasion, setting forward goals and outcomes with measurable achievements.” But it’s rare.

“Consultants shouldn’t promise specific results, because this is not an exact science,” says Metzler. Companies should expect accountability, however. “I think that there are certain aspects that you can measure—for example, whether as a result of education managers and other decision-makers are making decisions considering the value of diversity and whether as a result of this the demographics have changed,” he says. “I also think that you can measure through structured interviews and focus groups whether the diversity intervention has made a difference.”

Metzler reiterates that choosing the right professional is the most important decision of the consulting process, because failure of an initiative can carry serious consequences beyond the obvious waste of money and time. “Litigation is the big one,” he says. “Diversity interventions carry the risk of polarizing an entire company and awakening all manner of bad feelings and interpersonal conflict.” Other consequences arise from setting expectations too high; failure can demoralize a workforce, leading to turnover and loss of productivity.

“There are always people within the organization who are still waiting to see if diversity is ‘real,’ ” says Riccardi. “Every time you do something that is not successful, it feeds into the skepticism. It can really set you back.”

However, she adds, “There is really no excuse for hiring the wrong consultant— there are so many good people out there.”

Timothy Dwyer is the national director (U.S.) of KPMG LLP’s International HR Consulting Group within the firm’s People Services practice. He focuses on international program design, policy development, re-engineering and training.


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Core Competencies For Diversity Consultants

Although consultants should be selected for their philosophical and experiential “fit,” all should demonstrate a few core competencies, says Christopher Metzler, director of the Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Studies program at Cornell University. “Principally, they should understand the concept of diversity as it impacts four layers of the organization—individual, group and work team, interpersonal, and organizational—and how all these areas interact.”

In addition, he says, consultants must:

  • Understand the client's business.

  • Be able to connect diversity back to work processes and work design.

  • Understand what drives their own personal beliefs and biases regarding individual differences.

  • Understand diversity in the context of organizational and cultural change.

  • Understand systemic issues of discrimination, and apply a broad and expansive definition of diversity.

  • Discern the differences in the concepts of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action, and diversity and inclusion.

  • Understand both business and people issues, and be prepared to confront difficult issues.

  • Demonstrate constant renewal of technical knowledge and skills in the diversity area.

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