DEI Leadership: Should HR Run Your Diversity and Inclusion Program?
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) is becoming something companies can’t ignore any longer. Candidates can now check an employer's DEI ranking on Glassdoor before they apply for a vacancy, which means DEI is not just internal—it’s part of your public employer brand.
But many organizations stumble on one vital question: who should lead DEI? Some companies appoint a dedicated leader, such as a Chief Diversity Officer, while others allow their HR team to take on the role of HR leadership.
Successful DEI programs need everyone to get on board—but every bus needs a driver. Should HR fill that role? HR might seem like a natural fit for DEI leadership, as they are the experts on hiring, engagement, and organizational culture.
But there may also be reasons to look at alternatives for DEI leadership. Let’s look at the pros and cons of both strategies.
5 Reasons DEI Leadership Belongs in HR
The HR team already wears many hats, so it might seem natural to add one more. Here are a few reasons why HR could be best placed to lead your diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy.
1. HR are the people experts!
The most obvious reason is HR has insight into employee movement and development. They know who is coming, who is going, who will get promoted, and who is leaving the organization. These are crucial DEI metrics that will tell you if your strategy is succeeding.
2. HR has an objective view
HR professionals treat all employees equally, regardless of their role or department. As such, this makes the HR team natural referees, able to step in and resolve disputes without displaying bias toward any one party. That objectivity make HR a natural fit for DEI leadership, as they can take an even-handed view of the whole organization.
3. HR can coordinate with external partners
Recruitment may also be under HR’s scope, depending on your HR team structure. Determining partnership organizations to expand talent pools and connections is key to most diversity initiatives. HR can work with staffing agencies and RPO consultants to ensure your hiring practices are inclusive.
4. HR understands compliance and employment law
Knowledge of the dos and the don’ts around DEI initiatives is crucial to remaining compliant and ensuring initiatives do not violate any laws or regulations. The HR team can also document your DEI progress and demonstrate that your company has complied with all applicable rules.
5. HR can implement DEI strategy
Awareness of employee strengths and weaknesses helps to decipher what training and development opportunities best align with the organization’s readiness. As administrators and advisors of the Performance Management process, HR often has a good pulse on the opportunity areas and the needs related to DEI.
5 Reasons DEI Leadership Belongs Elsewhere
That said, HR teams are already quite burdened with many other responsibilities. While HR will always play a vital role in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, there are some compelling reasons to look elsewhere for DEI leadership:
1. HR might not know where to start
Being a people expert or being a person of an underrepresented group does not mean you are the best person for DEI initiatives. According to the Certified Diversity Institute, the role of a diversity practitioner means being a change agent. The most important skills are to be strategic, results-oriented, have a baseline knowledge of diversity issues, and be an excellent communicator and collaborator. While this often describes HR professionals, you might find a better
2. HR may not have enough resources
These past years have made it difficult for HR to keep up. Employees have come and gone, employment law has adjusted to meet the needs of people during the pandemic, and policies have changed. There is a simple question of whether your HR team have enough time to focus on DEI leadership.
3. Not all DEI initiatives are internally focused
A well-rounded DEI strategy will not just impact the organizational culture; it may seek to impact the community the organization serves. Such external initiatives do not always fall under the HR umbrella.
4. HR doesn’t always have a voice in senior leadership
HR teams may find it hard to assert their opinions and demonstrate their value and leadership teams may not feel the need to include HR in organizational discussions. DEI initiatives, like other business initiatives, need to come with a strong business case. Decisions often rally around how much the organization will make or save by new practices.
5. The ideal DEI leadership candidate might not be in HR
If your DEI champion isn’t passionate about the work, the chances of success are unlikely. Research and creative thinking are necessary for finding what fits each organization. For DEI to achieve success, tough conversations may happen to realign, correct, and enforce priorities. Inauthentic or performative actions can worsen the culture. To influence meaningful change, decisions need to be thought out and executed with intentionality and consistency.
Getting everyone involved with DEI
For DEI to be successful, everyone must play a part. No matter who is officially in charge of DEI, senior leadership is responsible for embedding such initiatives' importance in goal setting, top-down communication. They must also serve as executive sponsors to support idea development and alignment with organizational goals.
Managers must align with that messaging and correct any behavior unaligned with organizational policy and DEI initiatives. Employee engagement is also essential, and you can drive this with training, surveys, Diversity Councils, or Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Employee feedback supports accountability and is fundamental in determining employee engagement levels and assessing the success of such initiatives.
DEI is an employer differentiator right now and is a driving catalyst to bring systemic change to the world but implementing DEI is no easy feat. It is important to understand the readiness and current state of the organization. Engaging with a Certified DEI professional to perform an assessment of the state of DEI today and offer recommendations for the organization’s journey is a good place to start if the resources are not available internally.
Need some help with DEI or your organizational culture? Book a call with a Helios HR consultant to find out how you can attract, engage and retain a diverse team.