New DEI Roles Spike After Racial Justice Protests

Global HR

​Job openings for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) roles surged after the nationwide protests that followed the death of George Floyd in late May.

DEI-related job openings have risen by 55 percent since June 8, after falling by 60 percent at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March, according to data from employment and recruiting site Glassdoor.

“In the wake of nationwide protests against racial injustice, employees are expecting employers to not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk,” said Glassdoor senior economist Daniel Zhao. “While the COVID-19 crisis initially pushed companies to pull back on investments in diversity and inclusion, new economic research suggests that pressure and awareness from employees may be spurring companies to back up their commitments with action. The rebound in hiring for diversity-and-inclusion-related jobs is a meaningful signal of a deeper and more sustained investment, given how expensive and challenging it is to find, hire and retain specialized talent.”

Executive and leadership job openings in DEI have more than doubled since June 8 as many prominent employers announced hiring new chief diversity officers and promised a renewed focus on addressing discrimination within their organizations.

DEI job openings were already on the rise in recent years, reaching an all-time high at the beginning of March with over 1,000 jobs in this specialization available on Glassdoor. However, as the pandemic hit, the number of these jobs plunged, falling at twice the rate of overall job openings over the same time period.

The drop is partially due to HR departments feeling the brunt of cost-cutting at the outset of the pandemic. “One of the first things companies cut is HR, and within HR, unfortunately, for many businesses, DEI is still considered nonessential,” said Valerie Frederickson, founder and CEO of HR consulting and executive search firm Frederickson Partners in Menlo Park, Calif. Frederickson is known for presenting diverse slates of candidates to tech companies across Silicon Valley.

“With CEOs making public statements pledging to increase diversity at their companies came an uptick to find and hire DEI leaders as quickly as possible,” she said.

Nicole Ferrer, managing director of Diversity Recruiters, a Seattle-based staffing and recruitment company that specializes in finding and placing diverse candidates, has also experienced that increase in employer interest. “Quite a few organizations have contacted us saying that they are adding a DEI function for the first time and would like to fill the function’s leadership role preferably with a person of color. There’s also been an increase in companies saying they will shift resources from a traditional HR role with DEI responsibilities to focus the job on DEI programming instead.”

Zhao at Glassdoor added that although DEI jobs have come back significantly, the number of openings is still 38 percent lower than pre-COVID-19 levels.

Changing Needs

Frederickson said she’s seen a shift in the types of candidates companies are looking for to be effective DEI leaders. “Previously, they tended to be HR professionals with 20 to 30 years of experience looking for a change,” she said. “Often, they only had relationships within HR and only a limited amount of influence and were ineffective in igniting organizational change. They tended to be presenters and even now are often speaking at conferences and making announcements during Black History Month, but that does nothing to change DEI numbers.”

Frederickson said that companies are now looking for more-effective leaders with operational or strategic backgrounds. “They should understand the business deeply and enjoy the trust of the senior executive team so they can effect real change,” she said. “They know that achieving diversity is not an HR issue but a fundamental business issue that needs to include changes to systems, processes and mindset. The shift from external evangelist to internal operator who can make a difference has turned the typical DEI job posting on its head.”

Finding candidates skilled in change management and organizational development is critical, Diversity Recruiters’ Ferrer said. “These roles are not just HR functions—these roles are really being tasked with changing an environment and a culture. Hiring someone who is a strong collaborator who can broker a collective impact within an organization is also critical, because these initiatives crumble when the burden is put on one person’s shoulders.”

There’s also been a shift in the types of companies looking for DEI leaders, she said. “Traditionally, they were very large employers, but now we’re seeing companies with fewer than 500 employees hiring their first DEI leader.”

Effecting Change

While there’s evidence of new momentum to tackle diversity and inclusion at work, historically, DEI leaders have not been given real power—resources or organizational support—to make lasting changes to their organization.

“Most DEI leaders are not set up for success,” Frederickson said.

Ferrer said she’s known candidates who eagerly took a DEI job with the promise that they would help build change, but they found there wasn’t a true commitment to the stated mission at the company and ended up leaving. “DEI is not only under-resourced but also hidden within the layers of HR,” she said. “I’ve also seen other organizations that are truly committed to creating diverse and inclusive workplaces and their DEI leaders report directly to the CEO.”

Executive buy-in needs to start at the top, Fredrickson said. “If DEI doesn’t come from the CEO down, it doesn’t work.” 

She recommended that before DEI leaders take a job, they conduct a readiness assessment to see whether or not they can be successful in their new role.    

Ferrer advised elevating the DEI program by aligning a metric to programming. “Something needs to be measurable so that it isn’t seen as a cheerleading advocacy group or an angry group just expressing dissatisfaction,” she said. “I always recommend DEI practitioners measure retention of employees of color. If these employees are not staying, then you have a problem.”

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