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Diversity Officers to CEOs: This Is What We Need

A group of people sitting around a table in a meeting.

​Discrimination continues to run rampant in the workplace. Reports have shown that racial trauma at work is real, women who work similar jobs to men still earn less and LGBTQ employees face consistent harassment from colleagues.

But many CEOs have taken notice. And they're trying to create change.

In 2021, consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates released a study showing that the hiring of new chief diversity officers (CDOs) within S&P 500 nearly tripled in the previous 16 months.

"This is overdue," said Amy Hull, director and head of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) at Paycor, a global leader in human capital management, speaking to the nationwide focus on DE&I. "And it's time that everyone feels respected and has equitable opportunity based on their ability, not based on social constructs developed to keep marginalized communities in the margins."

Hiring a DE&I officer is a significant step toward creating change in the workplace. But these skilled professionals need support and resources from business leaders to effectively do their jobs and create a diverse, inclusive environment.

Invest in DE&I

Sonja Gittens Ottley is the head of diversity, inclusion and belonging for Asana, a mobile work management platform. She explained that DE&I initiatives need to be provided with the right tools and resources that allow CDOs to execute programming.

This means company leaders must intentionally prioritize DE&I initiatives when budget planning by allocating the right team and resources, Ottley said. The funds can be used for diversity training programs or to create an automation-based system to support DE&I goals.

"Today, companies are finally putting more resources into these programs," Ottley said. "It's important that the funding is allocated to strategic priorities that align to short-, medium- and long-term goals."

These resources should include software that offers intersectional demographic insights and trends, allowing CDOs to forecast workforce trends and calibrate strategy, according to Laura Close, DE&I expert and co-founder for analytics firm

"Real-time data is key," she explained. "Otherwise, leaders will only have lagging indicators, an overreliance on surveys and disparate systems cobbled together."

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Overcoming Workplace Bias

More Communication

Ottley said that communication is crucial for business leaders to best support, encourage and amplify a CDO's efforts. This may require incorporating a new structure where DE&I leaders report directly to the CEO.

"Leaders need to work with their chief diversity officer to ensure the proper structures, teams and communication channels are in place that allow for these authentic conversations to occur," Ottley said.

She added that it's important to openly talk about DE&I with the entire workforce. In 2016, Asana launched an internal and external event series to encourage discussions about topical issues, spark dialogue among their workforce and empower allies to support change in the workplace.

"Programs like these can elevate an organization's collective literacy around diversity, equity and inclusion; shift employees into action; and create a space focused on building a company culture centered around belonging and inclusivity," Ottley added.

Lead by Example

Angela Shaw, chief people officer of beverage company JuiceLand in Austin, Texas, said that business leaders should commit to supporting diversity officers and DE&I initiatives as they would a sales event or product release.

Shaw said CEOs should:

  • Attend internal DE&I meetings.
  • Hold the rest of the leadership team accountable to being visible.
  • Speak out about the importance of DE&I internally and on a regular basis (it should always be an agenda item).
  • Hire a diverse leadership team.

 "Set the example for inclusive behavior," Shaw said. "Talk about [your] own personal growth in DE&I and what [you] are doing, such as learning new things, donating or marching."

Hull said that companies may need to alter their policies and procedures to adhere to new DE&I strategies. However, CEOs should embrace these changes and view them as an evolution of their organization.

"Be open and willing to be a part of the change rather than acting defensively or rendering decisions from a place of fear," she said. "Your CDO is not pointing out personal faults, yet they are leading a change effort to counteract bias and stereotypical policies in the workforce. Uncovering gaps is a part of the work."

Consider Their Mental Health

The role of DE&I officer can be physically and mentally taxing on the individual. Researchers at Russell Reynolds Associates found that:

  • The average CDO tenure is under two years, compared to more than three years in 2018.
  • Nearly 60 percent of 2018 CDOs have left their roles, with the majority leaving for other professional interests.
  • Burnout was cited as a key driver in failing to retain CDOs.

"I hear from chief diversity officers all the time–CEOs hire CDOs with high expectations, but offer few resources like budget, a team or decision-making authority," Close added. "Under this tremendous pressure, CDOs have been asked to diversify the workforce, and it's a recipe for burnout."

Hull said the job can become isolating, as they are often labeled "the voice of DE&I" for the entire organization. There are people not interested in an emphasis on DE&I and those who are frustrated that these changes not happening fast enough—and the DE&I officer endures the brunt of these complaints.

"Constantly working to help others can be exhausting," Hull said. "But it is extremely motivating and uplifting when the CEO and executive leadership are [aligned] with the heads of DE&I and [serve as] strong support systems for them emotionally and professionally."


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