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The month of June saw many company logos altered to incorporate the rainbow-colored Pride flag in a show of support for marginalized groups. However, this temporary gesture—like the publication of grand statements against racism—does not indicate a company culture or structure free from inequities.

Recently, more companies are venturing beyond the bare minimum approach and hiring dedicated diversity, equity, and inclusion professionals. According to a March 2021 Indeed report, “Between September 2019 and September 2020, Indeed job postings in diversity, inclusion and belonging have risen 56.3%—from 140 jobs per million to 219.” More significantly, the report continues, the DEI industry “recovered quickly, with job postings rising by ... 123% between May and September (2020)” despite the economic lull last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The growth in these positions suggests a newfound willingness by companies to address what often are found to be exclusionary work cultures and biased recruitment and promotion practices. But improving DEI doesn’t end—or start—with hiring a full-time DEI professional or consultant. Moving the needle on workplace equity takes rigorous preparatory work beforehand and then long-term resource commitment and support every day thereafter.

Lily Zheng
courtesy Lily Zheng Consulting Lily Zheng
Sharla Toller
Laura Peters Sharla Toller

Prior to taking on a new client, Mountain View, Calif.–based DEI consultant Lily Zheng asks a key question: Is the organization actually ready to change? “I ask them what their processes are and about how they've challenged their preconceived notions,” Zheng says. “I look for humility and a growth mindset, especially in leadership. If they recognize that there are things they don't know and that there are things they can learn, that's a very good sign.”

Sharla Toller, CannonDesign’s director of DEI as of this April, believes companywide communication is critical to this pre-hiring work. “Leadership should … lay the foundation by making the importance of DEI known to the organization through messaging,” she says. Firm leaders should also be ready to engage in dialogue that they may find challenging. “[Their] inability to communicate effectively across difference, whether that's a fear that their words might land in a way that's not intended, can lead to people from underrepresented backgrounds not getting feedback, not being mentored, and not being developed in a way they need to be in order to advance within the organization,” Toller says.

Forgoing the early work and leaning on short-term DEI initiatives and one-off trainings can lead to mixed-bag results. A 2016 report in the Harvard Business Review analyzed and compared the results of mandatory versus voluntary DEI trainings, and short-term versus long-term strategies. “The positive effects of [mandatory] diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash,” write authors Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev.

Additionally, the study showed that mandatory one-off training that frames DEI as a legal issue yields fewer underrepresented individuals hired—and, Zheng says, creates pitfalls like DEI trainings being inactionable, conducted without follow-up, or kept disparate from corporate culture. That is, the skills and tools taught are never applied at scale.

“When employees ask for more diversity, they're not saying, ‘We want you to just throw a person of color on your board,’” Zheng says. “Employees are not just asking for the outcomes to be different—they're asking for the fundamental systems and processes to be different.”

Changing fundamental systems means firms need to dedicate resources for the long haul. “DEI is a core organizational imperative that deserves all of the resources, authority, and support that any other organizational initiative would,” Zheng says. Hiring a dedicated DEI professional requires significant resources for that individual’s efforts and initiatives, but also for support staff who dedicate their own time and energies toward building a more inclusive workplace. “The DEI professional is not the only person responsible for contributing to an inclusive environment and doing the work,” Toller says.

Both Zheng and Toller are aware of how employee “volunteers” are often summoned to do the heavy lifting either prior to—or in lieu of—the creation of a well-resourced DEI department. “Expecting your diverse talent to spend a lot of time, [for example] recruiting other talent to your organization, but not valuing that time, is an issue,” Toller says.

Zheng often asks those volunteer groups what they believe their DEI work is worth. “They never are able to answer it,” Zheng says. “They are conducting all-employee surveys, doing their own survey analysis, and creating recommendations and a DEI strategy. That work costs—for a small- to medium-sized organization—easily $50,000. To do that as a small group of volunteers, getting paid zilch, is a travesty.”

Among many things, a successful DEI program creates mentorship opportunities within the company, performs intentional recruitment at the college level, and provides voluntary training and cross-training for new and established employees in addition to hiring a DEI professional, the Dobbin/Kalev study found.

In her role, Toller plans to conduct ongoing measurement of CannonDesign’s DEI initiatives with an interactive dashboard that informs senior leaders on employee demographics so they may strategize on recruitment efforts appropriately. The company’s initiatives include creating affinity resource and networking groups, implementing ongoing DEI learning sessions, and celebrating heritage months.

Toller will also direct the firm’s leadership to use data from firmwide surveys “to think critically about what could be driving the differences in perception and experiences across various demographic groups within the firm,” she says. “We will be holding our leaders accountable for change over time, in a way that will shift the culture and change mindsets in a positive direction.”

Accountability is key for any organization and institution. Hiring a DEI professional can be neither a panacea for existing systemic problems, nor the start of a firm’s commitment to repair and change. Though DEI professionals can help keep leadership accountable, they in turn require sustained commitment and resources in order to make real strides.