The CDO Goes. Do Diversity Efforts Stay?

There’s been slew of high-profile departures of chief diversity officers lately. Is there something new stymieing DEI efforts?

It was only three summers ago, during the height of the protests around the murder of George Floyd, when organizations were making massive proclamations about diversity and installing new chief diversity officers. By 2022, nearly 75% of S&P 500-listed firms had a chief diversity officer, up from less than half in 2018.

Now, however, in about a six-week span, several of those high-profile diversity leaders hired at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement have left their posts. That’s on top of CDOs leaving top roles within the US government and Hollywood. The departures, experts say, are symptomatic of the ongoing frustrations around dwindling diversity efforts, as well as the tendency to create high-profile roles without budget backing. “Organizations and CDOs are throwing their hands up,” says JT Saunders, Korn Ferry’s chief diversity officer. “They thought they were getting one thing but didn’t get it.”

The average tenure of CDOs at big firms is now less than two years, having shrunk from around three years before the pandemic and social unrest of 2020. CDOs have one of the shortest average tenures of C-suite executives.

For the past year, efforts to diversify firms have been lumped into attacks by activists saying that environmental, social, and governance initiatives detract from an organization’s top priority of making money for investors. Then in June the Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action initiatives in college admissions programs were unconstitutional—which was promptly followed by a cohort of Republican attorneys general issuing warning letters to Fortune 100 CEOs on the legality of some DEI efforts.

But experts say these more recent issues are secondary factors, at best, in the ongoing struggles chief diversity officers have faced. Many CDOs still don’t have clear lines of communication with the CEO, clear lines of authority or influence with business leaders, or enough resources to help a firm successfully—and sustainably—diversify a firm’s talent pool and create a more inclusive, inviting culture. In all, according to a survey of 1,000 firms, leadership support for diversity programs has fallen 18% in two years. “The challenges, systematically, are still the same,” says Kim Waller, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Organizational Strategy and DEI practices. Those issues likely will outlive the current political climate, too.

To be sure, experts say some of new CDOs were not ideal hires. In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 social unrest, companies scrambled to add diversity leadership without necessarily knowing if those people were good leaders or cultural fits. But experts say that many organizations also haven’t realize that they needed to make substantial changes to their processes to make diversity and inclusion a sustainable reality. Those that did were unwilling or unable to execute them.

In some cases, CEOs have pushed for more diversity within their company’s ranks but then didn’t incentivize lower-level employees to make it happen. “You aren’t going to get diversity, equity, and inclusion if you don’t have those metrics built into every single officer with managerial experience,” says Tamara Rodman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Culture, Change and Communications practice.

For some firms, the slew of CDO departures may allow for a chance to address diversity issues in a new way. It should start, Waller says, with firms answering the question, “Why is diversity and inclusion important to the business?” After coming up with that answer, firms can embed a diversity commitment into their business, talent, and community strategies, and then identify a leader who can drive it.


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