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How to Hire a Chief Diversity Officer

With equity and inclusion at the forefront of national conversation and public policy, the fashion industry is scrambling to hire diversity leaders. But in their haste to address years of falling short, companies must be careful not to do more harm than good.
Fashion and retail have historically lagged behind other industries in prioritizing corporate diversity and inclusion and now companies are in a crunch to catch up.
Fashion and retail have historically lagged behind other industries in prioritizing corporate diversity and inclusion and now companies are in a crunch to catch up. Shutterstock.

Martha Garcia was feeling burnt out a few months after she cinched a promotion as a senior communications executive at Hoka One One. But her new position at the shoe brand wasn’t the biggest cause of her stress. Rather, it was a volunteer role she’d taken on at the company years earlier, which didn’t appear on her resumé at all.

Garcia, who immigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, with her parents when she was a year old, had picked up a wide range of internal diversity-and-inclusion responsibilities, from rebranding an employee resource group to hosting panels, all meant to support people of colour at the company and raise awareness of the issues they face in the workplace and beyond.

But Garcia found herself overwhelmed, disappointed and increasingly apathetic — feelings that were amplified as she balanced work and remote schooling for her daughter during the pandemic. She left the company in January and now runs her own marketing agency specialising in helping brands craft more-inclusive messaging.

“This isn’t me putting it back on the company or the brand but I think there’s a lack of understanding of the emotional burden and toll that it takes on people of colour to put themselves out there and to be vulnerable,” she said.

In July 2020, amid national outrage over the police killing of George Floyd, postings on Glassdoor for executive roles such as “chief diversity officer,” “head of diversity and inclusion,” and “vice president of diversity and inclusion” more than doubled from the previous month. Deckers, which owns Hoka One One, Ugg, Teva and other brands, appointed its senior legal counsel to an additional role as “director of equity, inclusion and diversity” in June.

The sudden demand for specialists in diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, came amid a broader racial reckoning. But at many companies, it also reflected mounting frustration among minority employees like Garcia who had been playing this role on a volunteer basis for years, often unpaid and with little support from senior management. Nearly a year later, the impact of the new class of DEI executives can be difficult to measure. A Glassdoor study released last week found Black employees are the least satisfied with their companies’ diversity-and-inclusion efforts.

For fashion firms, figuring out who to hire is proving to be one of the biggest challenges. Large retailers tend to recruit DEI executives from a small pool of professionals who have played similar roles elsewhere, said Kyle Rudy, a partner at executive placement firm Kirk Palmer Associates. Other companies tap executives with a background in human resources, legal or procurement. Some appoint an employee who has shown passion on the issue, turning a volunteer role into a formal position.

Each approach to hiring has its potential pitfalls. An experienced DEI specialist might discover employees of colour at a contemporary label have different needs than their counterparts on a football team. An employee might care deeply about diversity but lack the professional skills to implement their vision across a giant company.

The ideal DEI leadership candidate is “somebody who has the ability to influence at all levels of the organization,” said Keri Gavin, partner and DEI practice leader at executive search firm Hanold Associates. Whether that person has a resumé brimming with previous DEI positions is less important.

Rather, they must be “great listener … and able to meet people where they are on their journey and help them see some of the biases that they have,” she said.

Laying the Groundwork

Theresa Watts joined the denim brand True Religion last year as vice president of human resources. She spent much of her first few months on the job “preparing the company for diversity.”

That included having honest and uncomfortable conversations about race and other topics with employees at all levels — including the c-suite — said Watts, who helped shape AT&T’s diversity program in the late 1990s while still a graduate student at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Watts said hiring a DEI leader and changing a company’s internal culture shouldn’t be approached hastily or purely to check a public relations box.

“I think a lot of times organizations want to start big, and they want to get out in the media and say ‘we have this diversity person, we have this new resource and we have this new DEI department,’” Watts said. “You can start very small with changing the culture in your organization.”

For instance, as an executive who happens to be a woman of colour, Watts said she’s experienced the “culture shift” that can happen when she visits True Religion stores and grabs lunch with minority employees. She says she’s been able to forge personal connections with such associates who often leave those encounters with a new outlook on their own abilities to rise within the organisation.

Before a DEI leader is tapped, the role should have the full support of senior management and the resources needed to make changes throughout a business, said Watts. C-suite executives can work with their company’s human resources department to craft a DEI strategy and put formal processes in place to ensure its execution.

“Are you ready for the diversity that you seek?” Hanold’s Gavin said. “And if you are, what happens after you get this diverse leader; what happens after you continue to build your diverse talent pool?”

Who to Hire

Big companies often hire experienced DEI types who know how to bring diversity issues to the fore across a sprawling global company with offices in many countries. Nike’s head of talent, diversity and culture held similar roles at Tesla and Juniper Networks; and Gucci and LVMH both appointed DEI leaders from Major League Baseball. Chanel and PVH hired DEI executives from UBS and Wells Fargo, respectively.

It may be valuable for global fashion houses, in particular, to bring in candidates from outside the industry to lead the DEI function, according to Lisa Butkus, partner and head of the retail and luxury goods practise at Hanold.

“You have very defined cultures in fashion houses in Italy and France ... there’s a whole different set of challenges there — because the culture is so deeply [entrenched],” she said. An external hire “can bring a more progressive mindset and a crisper lens that can … professionalise [the role].”

Smaller companies might not be able to poach a DEI executive from an NFL team and may be better off embedding the DEI function within human resources, Butkus said.

“The important piece is that you’re not tacking it on to someone in HR because you think you need to just ‘have DEI,’ but you’re investing in the work and that person is going to have the resources and horsepower to take on that work,” she said.

To that end, leaders in a rush to engage minorities for the DEI function must be mindful of the extraordinary personal and professional pressures those employees feel when it comes to taking up the mantle of organizational change, said Kirk Palmer’s Rudy.

“DEI leaders are not a singular silver bullet,” he said.

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