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For chief diversity officers, a changed landscape after Floyd’s murder

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Companies are making more urgent changes, but work for CDOs can be exhausting, and turnover for the position is high. PeopleImages via Getty Images

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Major banks, universities and the Biden administration are among the many entities who have brought on chief diversity officers in recent years. Since the murder of George Floyd, companies have been hiring more of them, too. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of people with the title “head of diversity” grew 107%, according to LinkedIn data.

But retention is low: LinkedIn also says the average turnover for a chief diversity officer (CDO) is just three years.

Corporate interest in diversity, equity and inclusion comes in waves. There was a surge when Black Lives Matter initially took off, then again with the #MeToo movement and last summer after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

“It’s the busiest I’ve been in 18 years,” said Sharon Jones, a diversity and inclusion consultant with offices in Chicago and New York. Jones said things have felt different in the last year –– requests from companies are more urgent and some have led to real changes, like the hiring of in-house chief diversity officers.

“If diversity and inclusion is important to you, it has to be somebody who has responsibility for making sure it happens,” Jones said.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art hired Lavita McMath Turner to be its first CDO last fall. Part of McMath Turner’s job is to make sure the staff is diverse when it comes to race, gender and academic backgrounds, but also when it comes to what’s hanging on the walls.

“Inclusion is actually a part of that effort. You know, who gets to tell the stories and whose stories are told,” McMath Turner said. She said part of her job in making inclusion a piece of the Met’s institutional fabric is to convince employees that it’s not just her job, but everyone’s.

Stephanie Creary, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said that can be exhausting for many diversity officers, which is one reason CDO turnover is so high.

“They’re spending a lot of time in meetings convincing people that this is important and don’t always have sufficient time to do the work that needs to be done in order to move the needle on diversity,” Creary said.

To do better, companies need to hire diversity teams, Creary said, and select CDOs with the right experience instead of promoting an employee who’s never worked in HR or law. “They were good marketers or they were good at selling toothbrushes, but they weren’t necessarily people who had any background other than their own personal experience,” Creary said.

For those who’ve been at it for years, the work isn’t necessarily getting easier. But according to Lesley Slaton Brown, who’s been the CDO at computer and printer giant HP since 2015, the aftermath of Floyd’s murder has pushed people to engage.

“People were tired, people were angry, and just sick of seeing the injustices happening to Black and African Americans,” Slaton Brown said. She said that anger drove workers to have deeper and more direct conversations about equity.

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