What HR professionals can learn from the relationship between comms and diversity execs

The way diversity officers and communication officers work together provides insights for CHROs according to Anetra Henry, director of strategic initiatives at the Institute for Public Relations:

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Jun 17, 2024

Results from a new study about the relationship between communication and diversity executives may have some important insights and implications for human resource professionals.

In February 2024, the Institute for Public Relations released a new report, “Collaborators for Change: Research on the Relationship between Communications and Diversity Executives,” based on interviews with 20 chief communications officers (CCOs) and 20 chief diversity officers (CDOs) collected between March and August 2023.

Researchers interviewed these executives about their relationship with each other, the impact of the diversity, equity, and inclusion work they do, and how this affects organizational culture.

Of the 13 key takeaways found in the report, here are five that we believe human resources professionals may find most insightful.

1 CCOs and CDOs agree the CDO should report directly to the most senior leader of the organization

Half of the chief diversity officer respondents said they reported directly to the most senior leader, and six reported to the chief human resources officer (CHRO). The remaining four have other reporting relationships, including hybrid roles, such as CHRO/CDO. One respondent shared their discomfort with the perceived conflict of interest within HR:

As we can see, the second most common reporting structure was the CDO reporting to the chief human resources officer (CHRO) – but this generated mixed reviews.

“I report directly to HR, but I would prefer to report directly to the CEO,” said one, “because a lot of the diversity and inclusion things that we do are internal and they are meant to increase inclusivity around how we work and in our culture.”

This same respondent added: “I definitely don’t feel like I fit. I see a lot of conflict – with me being focused on diversity and inclusion, and yet this being within HR. The goal of HR is to protect the organization, and that is a huge conflict when we are behaving badly.”

Our view: The clear takeaway, we feel, is that any reporting structure should ensure that the CDO is not hindered from doing their work, and that conflicts of interests are not being created.

Processes should also be in place to ensure employees have a safe space to report discriminatory workplace experiences, and that DEI is integrated throughout the enterprise.

2 All CDOs (most of whom were from underrepresented communities), had prior diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)-related experience before the CDO position was formalized. Most received formal titles in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd

Many of the CDOs who participated are members of underrepresented communities and some shared about their journey into the role.

With the increased demand for CDOs in 20201, a common microaggression they experience is others believing that they inhabit the role solely because of their membership within that underrepresented community.

But our research found that all the interviewed CDOs had DEI-related experience before having the formal title.

This experience includes DEI-specific roles at other organizations or developing and leading employee resource groups in their current organizations, in addition to their educational qualifications.

3 Interviewees discussed various ways their organizations measure DEI. The most used metrics include representation in numbers across specific DEI markers and employee surveys.

Most of the organizations represented in the study measured the visual indicators of DEI: things like gender, race, and ethnicity.

But most respondents only measured these markers in the recruitment phase of the employee life cycle.

While many organizations have multiple methods of measuring DEI, some reported having no system of measurement.

CCOs and CDOs agree this is an area that needs improvement.

Our view: Metrics used need to be deeper, broader, and more inclusive.

None of the interviewees mentioned goals related to those with disabilities or members of the LGBTQIA community.

Only some organizations are tracking promotions, pay equity, and inclusivity through employee feedback surveys.

This presents an opportunity for both CDOs and HR departments alike to strengthen their goal setting and measurement strategies.

4 Both CCOs and CDOs stressed the challenges of not having enough resources – something that both said hindered their ability to be effective

Resource constraints emerged as a significant hurdle impeding the effectiveness of both CCOs and CDOs.

Resource deficits, including technology, staffing, funding, professional development, and succession planning, among others, inhibit their capacity to drive meaningful change.

Another challenge faced by these executives is DEI fatigue, or the emotional and psychological exhaustion experienced when engaged in DEI-related activities.

For CDOs, the emotional toll underscores the imperative for the organization to provide support and preparation to individuals in this role, potentially extending their tenure beyond the current average of two years.1

5 All participants said they had a “symbiotic” or “embedded” relationship with their counterparts and described that relationship in positive terms. Both functions said their counterparts were critically important to their function’s effectiveness

Despite challenges, such as DEI fatigue, burnout, increased politicization, and anti-DEI legislation2 targeting the practice, a good piece of news is that study participants seem to realize they share a symbiotic relationship with their counterparts.

This relationship is characterized by mutual support and advocacy.

This positive dynamic underscores the potential for alignment across the C-suite, particularly with the CHRO, in advancing shared organizational goals.

Overall, the relationship between CCOs and CDOs is one of advocacy, allyship, and mutual respect.

These executives work through the challenges and create effective ways to overcome the pain points.

The collaborative way in which they work leaves a lasting impact on their organizational cultures.

Human resource professionals can contribute to this dynamic by participating and incorporating some of the other key insights found in this report.

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