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chief diversity officer (CDO)

What is a chief diversity officer?

The chief diversity officer (CDO) is a senior leader who develops and implements diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives within an organization. The CDO's purpose is to advance diversity and inclusion as core values and critical components of the organization's culture.

A chief diversity officer is responsible for thinking about how an organization engages, activates and supports its talent. They ensure there are pathways forward for all people within the organization -- regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, age or disabilities.

Ideally, this diversity leader works with other C-suite leaders to create systems, structures, processes goals and initiatives to help them achieve a variety of objectives. This includes diversity, inclusion, belonging, equity and respect. All C-suite leaders need to have a shared commitment with the CDO, or efforts may not be successful.

What does a chief diversity officer do?

The responsibilities of a chief diversity officer include:

  • creating diversity and inclusion messages;
  • crafting and implementing new diversity programs;
  • supporting diversity and inclusion strategies;
  • promoting collaboration between management and department heads;
  • managing employee discrimination and harassment complaints; and
  • addressing issues of diversity that underrepresented groups face in the company.

Learn about some top diversity issues in the workplace.

CDOs coordinate efforts internally to provide staff with resources and courses -- such as cultural competency training. They host events and panels, encourage conversations and lead employee resource groups.

They also find ways to work outside their organizations in the communities they serve. This includes recruiting, hiring, developing and retaining a diverse workforce.

This job of CDO is too big to add to another executive's list of responsibilities, said Rayona Sharpnack, founder and CEO of the Institute for Women's Leadership and author of Trade-Up: 5 Steps for Redesigning Your Leadership & Life from the Inside Out. It needs to be someone's full-time focus or it will get diluted and not produce the change that is required.

"Don't put a straight, white male in this role if you can avoid it," Sharpnack said. "There are so many qualified people of color who can do a fantastic job if given the opportunity."

Why do companies need CDOs?

The increasing focus on racial justice in the United States has caused many organizations to start searching for their first chief diversity officers.

Organizations need diversity officers to ensure a focus on inclusiveness within the work setting. Inclusiveness means accepting and recognizing people's differences, hearing and understanding other people's perspectives, and establishing a village where people feel valued and trusted.

The current and future generation of employees will be diverse in terms of race, gender, sexual identity and will include people with disabilities, said Rich Ferraro, chief communications officer at GLAAD. And a chief diversity officer's role is to create welcoming environments for these employees to thrive.

Companies that get diversity, equity and inclusion right will be able to recruit and retain diverse talent. And those that do not prioritize DEI are likely to miss out on talent that will seek out competing brands, Ferraro said.

Having a chief diversity officer is no longer a nice-to-have, it's a must-have, said Marie Sylla-Dixon, chief diversity officer at Raytheon Technologies. The chief diversity officer plays an essential role in coordinating business strategy and implementing programs and initiatives that ultimately support a company's bottom line.

Diversity work also requires modifying organizational processes and structures in areas such as recruitment, performance reviews and the reward systems.

What are the skills, requirements and qualifications to become a CDO?

To become a chief diversity officer, individuals will need a master's degree in human resource management or one of the social sciences. They will also need between five and 10 years of experience in the field. Some companies may require applicants to have a doctoral degree in one of these fields. 

The variety of CDO responsibilities demands that successful candidates possess both academic credentials and workplace experience.

CDOs are typically responsible for ensuring compliance with equal employment opportunity regulations, affirmative action obligations and harassment investigations. Therefore, the ideal chief diversity officer will have a thorough understanding of federal and state laws, regulations and rules. And because organizing and presenting diversity training is often an essential function of a CDO's responsibilities, presentation skills are a must.

According to Lauren Romansky, managing vice president in the Gartner HR practice, the skills and talents for the CDO include:

  • Partnership and business acumen. A successful head of diversity and inclusion works across a complex stakeholder map to set up business strategy, objectives and tasks within that. Becoming more diverse and inclusive is fundamentally a change, so managing that change and all the people needed to participate in it is crucial.
  • Balance and urgency. Some of the most successful heads of diversity and inclusion balance urgency and reality of where the business is at. It can be challenging to come into an organization that is starting from square one. While there is potential, there are also a lot of moving parts. The head of diversity and inclusion will need time to understand the story of why the business is at that point to better understand the road ahead.

Five action steps for chief diversity officers

According to Susan Kuczmarski, author of the book Lifting People Up: The Power of Recognition, to succeed as chief diversity officers, individuals must:

  • Listen deeply. CDOs teach employees how to renew and improve their deep listening skills. If people really communicate, they can put their judgments aside and listen to somebody else.
  • Use specific and enthusiastic praise. The more detailed and descriptive the praise, the better. Most praise is too general -- it doesn't build self-esteem or motivate learning. Praise such as, "Good work," or, "You did a terrific job on that presentation," isn't detailed enough. It is necessary to give more specific information.
  • Reach out to people. A little compassionate asking, listening and reaching out is sometimes all that's needed to create a feeling of belonging or community. CDOs should try to see other people's perspectives and interests.
  • Begin a legacy of giving and service. The giving mindset says, "Let me try to make the work culture more caring and inclusive." It can be as simple as helping a colleague prepare for a speech, or as difficult as speaking one's mind and conscience on a controversial topic.
  • Treat each other with kindness. Talk together when the time is just right about the importance of kindness and what it looks like. It can be as simple as saying, "Hi," to someone, or smiling or asking, "How are you feeling?" CDOs should look for ways to show kindness to others. They should help colleagues see that kindness can make all the difference in a co-worker's life.

How much do chief diversity officers make?

As of December 2021, reported the salary range of the chief diversity officer was between $185,200 to $263,600, with the median salary at $214,500.

This was last updated in January 2022

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