5 Tips for the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) During Challenging Times

by Dr. Denise O'Neil Green | October 27, 2020 10:00 AM

Dr Denise O'Neil Green | Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion | Ryerson University
Dr. Denise O’Neil Green, Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion, Ryerson University

Four years ago (January 5, 2016) I did a post titled: “5 Tips for Inaugural Chief Diversity Officers (CDO) in Universities”.  I was half way through my fourth year at Ryerson University as the inaugural, Assistant Vice President/Vice Provost of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).  As such, my mandate was to provide leadership, advocacy, and coordination for the institution such that all members of the university community have the opportunity to learn, work, and teach in an inclusive environment that enables them to strive for excellence and reach their potential.  Since I had been in the role for a few years, I noticed that other Canadian universities began to establish similar senior-level EDI roles with an operational focus.  These roles had already taken hold in U.S. universities about 20 year prior. Periodically I would receive requests from new EDI leaders from across the country, including those with prior experience in similar posts, along with those who were ‘voluntold’ that EDI was now among their responsibilities. Because I was doing these consultations on a fairly regular basis, I created a video blog post that outlined five (5) key tips for inaugural Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) in universities:

I also included a PowerPoint presentation (PDF) to highlight the points I made in my video.

In light of pressing issues facing not only universities and other Municipalities, Universities, Schools, and Hospitals (MUSH) sector organizations as they grapple with challenges of this new 2020 decade, I offer five (5) additional tips for CDOs during these challenging times:

  1. Devise an EDI action plan that is data driven, using targets, goals, and timetables to measure progress: Most organizations have strategic or action plans to move from the theoretical, visionary space to the practical, concrete day-to-day operations.  The benefit of having an EDI action plan is that it articulates the institution’s goals, targets, and timetables, and who is responsible for achieving such goals and targets.  An action plan aids in galvanizing resources and alignment of effort so that units are not working in cross-purposes against one another or duplicating effort; it aids in building capacity to achieve said goals and targets.  Finally it reduces questions and the guessing game regarding a unit’s EDI responsibilities.
  2. Differentiate between everyone being responsible for EDI versus being accountable for EDI: Although plans are vital, what is more critical is accountability for leadership and management.  This is the most challenging tip to achieve however it is needed now more than ever.  Incorporating accountability into contracts, collective agreements, performance reviews, and merit/bonus assessments are all potential avenues for embedding EDI accountability.  I often hear people say: “everyone is responsible which leads to no one being responsible”.  However, organizations in the MUSH sector know how to get things done that are priorities. Nonetheless, EDI-related structural barriers persist, preventing marginalized and underrepresented groups from experiencing true inclusion.  With greater recognition and acknowledgement of anti-racism, oppression, and other forms of discrimination existing in the MUSH sector, now is the time for real accountability at all levels of management and leadership.
  3. Report annually on the rate at which the climate is perceived and experienced as welcoming: What gets measured, gets done” is what we are often told.  So, what are our metrics for a welcoming workplace, classroom, or campus? And how often do we report on our progress? If our core objective is a welcoming and inclusive workplace, classroom, and campus, grading ourselves and reporting it annually keeps us on track.  When substantive gaps between reporting happen, it allows for complacency and a false sense that progress is being made.  My colleague who does climate assessments for different organizations advises conducting and reporting on climate assessments annually.  That’s the platinum standard; but if that’s not possible, at least every other year should be the goal.  The risk of not doing so is that opportunities to make course corrections or capitalize on progress are lost.
  4. Push for action while resisting the process trap: I have worked in higher education for most of my career and there’s nothing a well-constructed committee can’t solve; but committee work is often mired in processes and takes time. Committee work is this back and forth dance that happens across the MUSH sector, because process is a means of protecting the organization so that decisions to act take into account standing policies, proper consultations with community members, and assessment of resources needed.  However, from the outside looking in, it appears nothing is happening and no actions are taking place. Now that we are working remotely during this pandemic, committee work is even more challenging as we lose that ‘secret sauce’ that comes from physically being in the same space.  EDI work is relational and process oriented, movement has been slow and may prove to be slower in a remote environment. My advice is that, where possible, push to act and avoid the process trap.  Many are tired of talking and want to see action!
  5. Move beyond the traditional human resources function. Those from marginalized groups often express that the human resources (HR) function is the arm of management, or too friendly with unions to create the change that’s needed to bring true inclusion. It’s no wonder this is the case as HR professionals in their training are not typically required to gain competency in EDI work, let alone work that directly addresses anti-oppression and anti-racism which is about dismantling power structures deeply entrenched within a colonial history that promotes a racial hierarchy that privileges whiteness. I have many human resources colleagues with EDI expertise from the US and Canada who want to move their organizations into the 21st century, but labor relations approaches dominate the space.  Human Resources Professional Organizations need to reimagine their function and redefine themselves because what they’re doing is not working.  The other HR: Human Rights, isn’t something to fear, but to embrace and center above and beyond labor relations and minimizing risk.  It’s a means of transformation because the world now knows we all, including CDOs, must and can do better!

What advice would you give to Chief Diversity Officers during these challenging times?

I’d love to hear what you think.

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