How to Develop a Killer Diversity Council

Sometimes you get one chance to avoid a landmine that could put you and the diversity initiative on the back burner, so taking care in developing this group is an imperative. The most important thing to consider in developing a diversity council is to balance leadership, middle management, and staff level
representatives. Doing so requires careful consideration of how to empower the resource group with financial support, a voice of authority, and an organization wide set of diverse points of view.

A 2005 SHRM workplace practices report indicated that about 1 in 5 organizations reported having staff dedicated exclusively to diversity.[1] By 2011, that number had dropped to a little more than 1 in 10 organizations in a study with a follow up question.[2] One in five of the organizations in the 2011 study reported having a diversity council, committee, or advisory board that focuses on diversity. It was reported that no less than 7 in 10 of these resource groups were funded (90%), had the CEO serving as a member (79%), and influence the organization’s business efforts (72%). This makes the council more resourceful and credible than most diversity officers, diversity managers, and HR professionals in creating institutional inclusion change.

It is a no brainer that the large percentage of CEO involvement accounts for the group’s budget and the business efforts influence. But, all too many (at least 1 in 5) organizations have resource groups that do not enjoy this benefit. The specific reasons for the lack of CEO participation are unclear, but what we know the leaders of those organizations were not compelled to do so. The leader of the organization is keenly aware of the treacherous landscape of promoting diversity and inclusion, so it may be that keeping below the radar on the issue is a driver. All too often, leaders simply do not know that their involvement is critical for offering the group authority and legitimacy needed to effectively promote inclusion.

The CEO is vital, but the infrastructure of the organization is commanded by middle and upper management. CEOs come and go over time and so do manages. The difference is that the management level infrastructure drives and maintains the culture. News media stories and at least one book, for example, indicated that President Barack Obama asked the treasury secretary to break up large banks during the early stages of the mortgage deficit crises. However, that office “dragged its feet” without taking action presumably due to lack of disagreement with the order.[3] The CEO may have considerable clout, but it is the management level that must carry out diversity and inclusion practices. How can they make a serious effort when they think it is a pet project or affirmative action in disguise?

So, what is needed to make this group a game changer? There are five movers and shakers you need to onboard to create a diversity council powerhouse. Here they are in order of importance.

  1. CEO or President
  2. At least two to three middle level managers who serve as formal or informal leaders of other managers
  3. Human Resource Officer
  4. One  employee who has vocalized displeasure with the diversity and inclusion initiative
  5. A cross section of staff from each organizational unit and representative of demographic groups.

We discussed the benefits of having the CEO onboard. Management representatives can help the group
understand the barriers to including managers and offer suggestions about how to best onboard them. One well respected Vice President of a medical industry company is “out” as a gay male in a “Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell” organizational culture. He is well respected and has a long history with the organization. The diversity council was an ideal way for him to champion inclusion. More importantly, he is able to take the message back from the council to management meetings in ways that champion the group’s work.

The SHRM 2011 study showed that while 62% (3 in 5) diversity programs are under the role and responsibilities of the human resource director, only 9% of them actually lead the initiative. One challenge for onboarding more HR directors is that the diversity initiative is all too often considered a training issue. The more the diversity initiative focuses on talent management, policy and procedure analysis, and collegiality, the more likely human resource professionals will see the direct link with their work. The partnership with HR is indispensable.

It may seem counterintuitive, but getting the most resistant voice among employees at the tables is imperative for developing a credible resource group. Time and again it has been shown that onboarding the diversity initiative critic leads to positive results and very little, if any, negative impact. One reason is that the individual will know that you are serious about inclusion and secondly she or he tends to have legitimate critiques about the initiative that add value to decision making. But be careful, showing sincerity in listening to these points of view often coops the individual for the diversity initiative cause. You may win the person over so much that someone else may need to be recruited to offer the contrasting voice.

It is all too often that a small percentage of respondents on an organizational diversity and inclusion survey will state that they don’t have much to say because either their work group lacks “diversity” or that their office is too remote from the main office to be well informed about any initiatives. At the same time, the more successful a diversity initiative, the more likely it will affect the lives of everyone in the organization. Make a list of all the business units in the organization and approach managers to solicit staff volunteers for the resource group. Avoid over representation of one HEG[4] group or non HEGs to the extent possible.

In summary, the most important thing to consider in developing a diversity council is to balance leadership, middle management, and staff level representatives. Doing so requires careful consideration of how to empower the resource group with financial support, a voice of authority, and an organization wide set of diverse points of view. Sometimes you get one chance to avoid a landmine that could put you and the diversity initiative on the back burner, so taking care in developing this group is an imperative.

DOM Staff writer

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[1] 2005 Workplace Practices: A Research Report by SHRM (Society for Human Resource
Management).

[2] 2011 (October) SHRM Survey Findings: An Examination of Organizational
Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion.

[3] 2011 (October 21) Obama Must Fire Tim Geithner by Dylan Ratigan, Reader
Supported News

[4] Historically Excluded Group (HEG) is used instead of minority group.

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