Diversity: It’s not just an HR function anymore

by Melenie J. Lankau

Many organizations are experiencing “diversity fatigue.” To a great extent, this is due to disappointing results from all of those diversity initiatives HR managers have put in place over the years. At the same time, some employers enjoy great success with diversity. The difference often lies in basic assumptions about what diversity means and what it can achieve.

HR’s traditional role

The responsibility for managing diversity and inclusiveness in an organization typically falls within the HR function. In many organizations, HR executives hold the title of chief diversity officer. They work with line managers and executives to create an organizational vision that increases diversity and maintain a climate that leverages diversity into high performance.

Many organizations have placed responsibility for diversity and inclusion on specific areas inside the HR function, such as recruiting or talent management.

The major challenge that diversity specialists have is that they are often viewed as “the champion” for diversity and that they “own” the accountability.

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While this may sound like the right way to structure the role, many diversity managers feel this actually makes it easier for others to dismiss the issue. The rationale: “Diversity is that person’s job or priority, so I don’t have to think about it.”

That can be a problem, because employees and managers may not really understand the importance of leveraging diversity or take the time to develop the skills needed to contribute to inclusive work environments.

What the best do best

Last year, I examined the companies rated as best places for diversity by the consulting firm DiversityInc. Most had several organizational practices in common:

  • Clear and consistent emphasis on the value of diversity in communication—in vision, mission statement and strategic goals
  • Identification of business drivers for diversity; identifying how diversity can improve organizational results
  • CEO and top management team involvement in diversity-related activities
  • Emphasis on diversity at the board level
  • Active diversity councils, advisory boards and em­­ployee resource groups
  • Commitment to increasing supplier diversity
  • Formal and facilitated informal mentoring programs
  • Community and philanthropic outreach for multicultural nonprofits
  • Partnerships with educational institutions for increasing minority student enrollment and support
  • Measures of progress and accountability mechanisms.

From this list, it becomes obvious that organization-wide diversity can’t just be the diversity professional’s job or HR manager’s responsibility.

Diversity’s shared vision

This level of commitment requires true partnership and participation across functional areas to align efforts that support a shared vision for diversity and inclusion.

At Wake Forest University’s Schools of Business, employers told us that the ability to leverage diversity is a critical leadership skill that can differentiate managers’ ability to achieve meaningful business results. That’s why we are piloting an extracurricular certificate program with our full-time MBA students. It offers students learning opportunities that will help them develop the leadership skills to build inclusive work environments, value diversity and leverage the unique talents and contributions of every team member.

We want our students to enter organizations realizing that fostering diversity is part of their obligation and responsibility as an employee and future leader. It’s not just the HR person’s job.


Melenie Lankau is senior associate dean of MBA programs and diversity at Wake Forest University Schools of Business. Contact her at (336) 758-4198.