Two years ago chief diversity officers were some of the hottest hires into executive ranks. Now, they increasingly feel left out in the cold.
Companies including Netflix, Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery have recently said that high-profile diversity, equity and inclusion executives will be leaving their jobs. Thousands of diversity-focused workers have been laid off since last year, and some companies are scaling back racial justice commitments.
Diversity, equity and inclusion—or DEI—jobs were put in the crosshairs after many companies started re-examining their executive ranks during the tech sector’s shake out last fall. Some chief diversity officers say their work is facing additional scrutiny since the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions and companies brace for potential legal challenges. DEI work has also become a political target.
“There’s a combination of grief, being very tired, and being, in some cases, overwhelmed,” says Miriam Warren, chief diversity officer for Yelp, of the challenges facing executives in the field. Warren says the fear that company commitments are imperiled fuel her and others to feel “more committed to the work than ever.” Yelp’s DEI budget has grown for the past five years.
In interviews, current and former chief diversity officers said company executives at times didn’t want to change hiring or promotion processes, despite initially telling CDOs they were hired to improve the talent pipeline. The quick about-face shows company enthusiasm for diversity initiatives hasn’t always proved durable, leaving some diversity officers now questioning their career path.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in police custody in May 2020, companies scrambled to hire chief diversity officers, changing the face of the C-suite. In 2018, less than half the companies in the S&P 500 employed someone in the role, and by 2022 three out four companies had created a position, according to a study from Russell Reynolds, an executive search firm.
Once mostly tasked with HR matters, today’s diversity leaders are expected to weigh in on new product development, marketing efforts and current events that have an impact on how workers and consumers are feeling. Warren and other CDOs said the expanded remit is playing out in a politically divided environment where corporate diversity efforts are the subject of frequent social-media firestorms.