Chief Diversity Officers: Reframing the Message

As Black History Month starts, experts are encouraging CDOs facing opposition to push on—with a new message.

It’s not like the job of a chief diversity officer has ever been easy. The first generation of CDOs was tasked with identifying problems—or people—that were creating a hostile environment for people from underrepresented groups. Their successors have been called upon to build systems to assist companies in finding, developing, and retaining underrepresented talent. CDOs have often encountered internal resistance, as well as a constant fight for resources.

But as Black History Month rolls around in 2024, many of those CDOs are facing open opposition, with public and private groups asking whether diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are effective—or whether they might even be harmful.

Diversity and inclusion experts have a message for CDOs: Don’t give up hope, but maybe modify the message. “It’s a moment in time to reframe. It’s about achieving the best business outcomes,” says JT Saunders, Korn Ferry’s chief diversity officer. Indeed, a litany of research and case studies show that companies with more diverse teams are more innovative, more likely to capture new markets, and better at decision-making. “If DE&I can be positioned as the key enabler to the daily concerns business leaders have, then it cannot be seen as a distraction or a cost,” says Andrés Tapia, Korn Ferry’s global strategist for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Help others understand the true value of DE&I,” Saunders says. Often, companies advocate diversity and inclusion efforts on the basis that they are the “right” thing to do. Previous efforts, and even some existing ones, experts argue, rely too much on awareness training and good intentions.

To be sure, experts admit that this might be a difficult message to hear at the moment. Some firms have cut back on resources dedicated to DEI efforts. Others have pulled back on bonus programs for executives tied to reaching various diversity-related metrics—and have replaced them with bonuses based instead on earnings per share, return on investment, and other profitability measures, says Todd McGovern, leader of Korn Ferry’s Global Total Rewards business.

Still, Saunders says he’s hopeful that— despite the retrenchments—chief diversity officers can win over corporate leaders by presenting them with clear evidence demonstrating “why diversity is important to the business.” 


Learn more about Korn Ferry’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion capabilities.