How Companies Can Vet a Potential Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Leader

By: Avery Francis and Sarah Saska, PhD

Art via Do You Compute

Making the decision to hire a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader is a huge step. This executive role will be one of the most cross-functional roles in the organization, particularly if this is the organization’s first dedicated inclusion effort. Before starting the hiring process, it’s critical to lay the right foundation for DEI success. Once that’s in place, the hiring process can begin.

At Bloom and Feminuity, we’ve helped companies hire DEI leaders that make truly impactful change. In this article, we’ve documented the framework we use when coaching companies on how to vet a potential DEI leader. If you’re not sure if you need a DEI leader in-house, check out our decision guide. If you’re ready to hire, keep reading.

Misconceptions in hiring a DEI leader

Hiring a DEI leader has unique challenges due to misconceptions many people have about what a DEI leader is and does.

Identity does not equal experience: DEI work is a mix of organizational psychology, sociology, human rights knowledge, and management philosophy. These are all incredibly in-depth knowledge practices that require both practical experience and formal education to understand. While having identity-based experience with different communities can be valuable, it does not automatically equal qualifications for this role.

The DEI field lacks standard accreditations: Some professions, for instance, accounting, have standard designations that help in hiring. The same cannot be said about DEI work, yet. While some programs like Cornell’s Diversity and Inclusion Certificate are recognized as high quality, there is no industry standard to lean on.

Expecting DEI work to be volunteer-driven: There’s a mistaken belief that DEI work is “passion work” and therefore should be volunteer-driven, on a part-time basis, by someone already in the company. True change can only come from dedicated resources — and that means the person needs to be paid to focus on this work. Volunteers are absolutely part of the equation for many organizations, but cannot bring sustainable, lasting change alone.

The qualifications and skillsets of a good DEI leader

As you look for candidates, remember that the role has a large mix of skillsets, talents, and experiences. Different organizations may require a different weight of skills, but a good DEI leader should possess all these skills in some form.

Data orientation: Inclusion work starts with understanding a baseline and connecting goals to organizational outcomes. While DEI leaders don’t need to be statisticians, they need familiarity with qualitative and quantitative data analysis to understand how various initiatives are progressing toward milestones and goals.

Flexible thinking: DEI leaders will frequently need to solve problems and engage at the local level while both considering the big picture and watching out for global trends that might affect micro-level actions.

Practical grassroots experience: A lot of corporate DEI work is translating grassroots charity, political, and protest movements into a workplace context. With that in mind, look for DEI leader candidates that have firsthand experience in these fields. Volunteer experience is ok, but they need to have demonstrated an impact.

Self-awareness: Every single person has various privileges and potential things working against them. A DEI leader needs to understand how they are both privileged and held back in every space they’re in, as they will need to act with self-awareness and model self-aware behaviour for others.

Systems thinking and project management: Many elements of DEI work are intersectional, meaning a single initiative could impact multiple things or people. A DEI leader has to understand systems, second and third-order consequences, and overall project management practices to move initiatives forward.

Political awareness and communication skills: Make sure your DEI leader understands how to communicate complex, sensitive concepts in easy-to-understand breakdowns and knows the finer points of confidentiality, engaging with unsupportive people, and getting people on board with their mission.

Ability to learn continuously and in public: New knowledge is constantly flowing from various communities that a DEI leader will engage with. That means the DEI leader needs to demonstrate their commitment to ongoing learning and know-how to model that behaviour in public so other executives and employees can learn by example.

Ability and willingness to empower and step back: DEI work cannot scale if the DEI leader wants to run everything themselves. A good DEI leader needs to know how to set up infrastructure, get people on board, and then step back to let other people take the reins — and the credit.

DEI is a portfolio of tasks. Hire accordingly

Hiring a DEI leader is more than someone who has personal experiences in — or knowledge of — inclusion concepts. It’s an intricate role that, when done well, touches every area of the organization. As you search, look for someone who can demonstrate all these features and skills. You can’t expect a superhuman, but at the same time look for someone who embodies the same complexity, cross-functionality, and diversity that is required to succeed in the role.

Keep blooming!

Avery

One more thing At Bloom, we support companies who aren’t ready to hire a full-time Diversity, Equity and Inclusion leader but need the strategic leadership on an interim basis. We offer a holistic 3 part learning experience that will not only get your people talking more openly about race, power and privilege but feeling more comfortable with doing so through facilitated learning experiences. Read this article and still need help? Bloom’s here for you. Reach out to learn more about our DEI experience here.

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