“I have been working in this arena, either as an internal or external practitioner, for close to 15 years now and I have never seen or felt as much energy built up around this body of work as I do now.”
– Joe Gerstandt

Organizational Diversity and Inclusion work is still a body of work very much in its infancy. It still suffers from a great deal of conceptual and linguistic underdevelopment, from a lack of consistency and coherence. It still over indexes its roots in compliance. But there is a very real and important growth spurt coming.

I have been working in this arena, either as an internal or external practitioner, for close to 15 years now and I have never seen or felt as much energy built up around this body of work as I do now. The field is currently being inundated with new people, and people with an unprecedented mix of backgrounds, expertise, and skillsets. Firms big and small, new and old are getting into the game, there are new technology solutions coming to market, there are more industries and professions implementing collaborative D&I initiatives, more targeted efforts on the community and affinity levels, and there are noticeably bigger and more specific commitments being made. This work is on the verge of blooming.

There are certainly pros and cons here, but this is overwhelmingly a good thing. Organizational Diversity and Inclusion work will be in a vastly different place ten years from now. And it is time for this body of work to leave the nest.

Human resources is and has been the default parking spot for all things relative to Diversity and Inclusion. Initially necessary, this has always been less than ideal, and is becoming increasingly problematic. The time has come to more clearly delineate this work from human resources, for the benefit of both parties. There is a long and growing list of reasons for this, I will touch on just a few of them here.

D&I work transcends HR.

There are many aspects of D&I work that do and will involve HR in a very central way, but there are also aspects of this work that do not have anything to do with HR. Vendor diversity, and marketing are, in many organizations, probably the two biggest examples of this. Diversity and Inclusion are not HR specific, they have relevance across the entire enterprise, and in different ways than HR does, and HR does not have the subject matter expertise on this work. D&I needs to be positioned to serve the enterprise, and with more direct access to senior leadership.

HR has been an absentee landlord.

Joe Gerstandt, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Joe Gerstandt, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

HR, as a profession, has never been terribly serious about this work. That is a sweeping generalization, so let me immediately clarify and beg forgiveness. There is and have been HR leaders who are tremendous champions for this body of work, many great D&I thinkers have come up and out of HR, there are many HR practitioners who truly value the Diversity of humans beings and are passionate about issues related to D&I. But, generally speaking, the HR profession has never been truly serious about this work. It has housed it and staffed it (often begrudgingly), but has it taken on risk for this body of work? No. Has it taken a stand in any real way? Has it invested in this work, driven research, experimentation, or innovation in this work? No. It has not. There is today, tremendous innovation in this field and nearly all of it is happening outside of HR.

It is not at all difficult to attend the SHRM Annual Conference, stay busy going to sessions, and still avoid any real conversation relative to D&I. There are social events at that conference significantly larger than the D&I conference that SHRM hosts in the fall. SHRM is not the profession, but it is certainly reflective of it. To the HR profession in general, D&I is a volunteer side gig.

All of which is understandable, HR is pulled in a lot of directions. It is being told to be more focused on the business, more like finance, more like marketing, more strategic, more savvy on data and technology, more disruptive, more influential, and it only has so much time, so much financial and political capital. There is today, no shortage of under-resourced D&I efforts languishing somewhere in HR that need to be set free.

HR has its own work to do.

The same antiquated logic that has led us to continue parking D&I inside of HR tells us that HR is the group that “gets it,” relative to D&I. This is simply not true. Again, there are certainly exceptions, but my experience tells me that HR has every bit as much work to do on this set of issues as anyone else does. I have encountered as much casual racism, sexism, ableism and homophobia in HR as I have in any profession, I have found as much open resistance to this work in HR as I have found anywhere. If HR as a profession properly understood and centered Diversity and Inclusion, D&I would be foundational to the profession. Inclusion would be the first practice, the first priority, the first product of all HR professionals. That is not the case today. D&I tends to be a somewhat isolated “project” inside most HR departments. HR has gotten a free pass on this work, and that needs to end. HR has work to do, starting with the very fundamentals, and I see no evidence that the profession is going to tackle this on its own. A properly positioned D&I function outside of HR with HR as one of its priority targets makes this much more likely.

Some will dismiss this as a “big company issue,” which I see as another example of antiquated thinking on this body of work. Any company that employs and/or provides services to human beings should have a formal focus on D&I, unless it wants to forever be fixing things (and making the “business case” for fixing things), which is an incredibly inefficient and exhausting endeavor.

This may all sound very critical of HR, and that is not my intention. Again, many of us doing this work have come up in and around HR, I almost always work closely with HR leaders and teams. The fact is, there are real limitations in what HR can do for this body of work moving forward. Moving D&I outside of HR will not solve all of the challenges facing organizational D&I efforts, but it will remove one of its biggest constraints and provide an opportunity to more strategically position the D&I function.

D&I and HR have the potential to be much better strategic partners in the future, than they have been roommates in the past.


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