The relationship between Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Human Resources teams can be fraught. This is in part because the role of DEI is to highlight challenges and gaps in the talent life cycle. HR can view this as DEI agents criticizing their work without a complete understanding of HRs priorities and workload. My HR colleagues share that while DEI exposes HR’s shortcomings, DEI is often the team that gets credit for any improvements.
Meanwhile, it is not uncommon for a DEI team to experience HR as being resistant and indifferent to DEI values and objectives – something that can be intensely frustrating for DEI practitioners who have a sense of urgency and vision for their organization.
Whether DEI is positioned within a larger HR Department, or forms a separate department, these tensions can block sustainable DEI progress. So what can DEI professionals do to build more positive, collaborative and ultimately successful partnerships with HR? And what can HR do to ensure that they support DEI?
DEI teams need to:
Be Aware of HR’s Workload
Familiarize yourself with HR’s deliverables as a department. Is there synergy or are the DEI team and HR getting mixed messages about what their priorities should be? Is what you are suggesting creating more work for an already overstretched team?
When I was VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Sodexo, one of our objectives was to hold review panels for each posted job. But we had 5000 job postings a year and for HR this was an unrealistic addition to their workload. We worked together to come up with a solution: instead of a blanket policy we targeted mission critical roles with the greatest challenges in diversity recruitment.
Instead of blaming one another for adding more work, or being resistant, we joined forces to tackle the problem creatively. I found that it was essential to listen to my HR colleagues, respect their workload, brainstorm creative solutions together and work to realistic timelines.
Get Buy-in from HR Leadership
Supportive HR leadership can make all the difference in implementing a DEI strategy - but unfortunately not all HR leaders have had the opportunity or exposure needed to develop a commitment to DEI. In my book, Leading Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion I talk in detail about a variety of “head” and “heart” strategies that can be used to bring unaware or resistant leaders along.
One of the first steps is to assess your HR leader – where are they in their DEI journey? What are the potential entry points, and what might shift them? Secondly, look for opportunities to invite them to step outside of their comfort zone – either through listening to others’ experiences, appealing to their pragmatic side, or tapping into their natural empathy.
In one organization, the White female Chief People Officer was focused on advancing women, but she hadn’t yet thought about intersectionality and the impact of racism on women of color. I invited her to a multicultural women’s conference. As the participants shared their experiences and perspectives, she began to see her own unearned privilege, and to realize that White women are not easily trusted by many women of color. This was a tipping point for her, and she ultimately became a strong ally.
Share the Limelight and the Credit
Often a lot of the work is done by HR but it is DEI that gets the recognition. It is essential that we share the limelight and credit with our HR colleagues, remembering that we need DEI champions throughout the organization – it is not “owned” by the DEI team.
At Sodexo, we had a mentoring initiative managed by my team, but in reality HR was critical to identifying the mentors and mentees and to the implementation. The DEI team and I were very careful to always share the credit and position the initiative as a joint project. Not only did that give recognition where it was due, but it also helped to build a sense of positive ownership within HR, making them more open to further collaborations.
Remember that DEI is more than HR
Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, we are not able to bring leaders along. I worked with one HR leader who I felt blocked DEI initiatives at every turn. It was frustrating, but I needed to find work arounds, and build other alliances wherever I could.
This reminded me that whether DEI reports to HR, to the CEO or elsewhere, DEI is not “just an HR issue.” HR is responsible for the talent life cycle, but for sustainable change, DEI must permeate the organization. We need to position DEI to be central to the business and the brand and build alliances outside of HR. At Sodexo, as we increased our visibility as a DEI thought leader, it attracted not only more diverse talent, but also new clients. Our DEI team touched over $1 billion in business and brought in more allies – within HR and elsewhere – who wanted to be a part of the journey.
HR leaders can also take steps to champion DEI and this takes curiosity, courage and commitment:
DEI work is both personal and structural. As HR leaders, take responsibility for your own learning by seeking out disruptive experiences, reading, and having conversations about challenging topics. Mentoring, and engagement with ERGs are excellent opportunities to grow.
Inclusive HR leaders are willing to assess their own biases and make themselves vulnerable. This isn’t easy, but role modeling this goes a long way to creating an open, inclusive organizational culture. Actively seek out experiences that disrupt your world view.
Commitment requires intentionality and accountability. HR leaders should hold themselves and their teams accountable for integrating DEI into the talent life cycle. For example, ensure that recruiters’ incentives are in part linked to sourcing diverse talent and the diversity of candidate slates. Require that search firms present you with diverse candidate slates.
Be intentional about embedding DEI in your talent life cycle. Are you incorporating inclusive leadership competencies into all your leadership development? Are you ensuring that underrepresented talent has access to development opportunities including high profile projects? In succession planning discussions, are you pushing for increased underrepresented talent as successors? Examine your talent processes and eliminate bias. Regularly conduct pay equity analysis and address any gaps. Conduct adverse impact analysis to spot and address bias in your recruiting process.
Include DEI in your leadership meetings and on your meeting agendas and ensure that you are looking for ways to intentionally partner with DEI, to showcase DEI and give the DEI teams credit. Be mindful of the DEI team’s workload and support them as all too often DEI team sizes and far from commensurate with their scope.
There are a lot of structural issues that can make the DEI – HR working relationship challenging. It is important that we resist personalizing the conflict, and instead look together at the root causes of tension and how they can be addressed. When HR and DEI are able to truly collaborate, it can become a transformative synergistic relationship that leads an organization to lasting change.
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