Change agent? The elephant in the room? The un-defined but pertinent pianist? What is the role of a diversity practitioner? By Anita Nahal, Ph.D., CDP
As a diversity practitioner, I am continuously propelled by others, and by my
own inquisitive spirit to discover, and more clearly define, the purpose and role
of a diversity practitioner. The literature available on the topic clearly labels the diversity practitioner as a change agent. But what is a diversity change agent? What does that exactly mean? What is the need to have a diversity officer with related costs? And why, after many companies and organizations invest thousands on training a cadre of change agents, “…does a room full of positive change agents ask the question ‘What can I do?’ ” (Najera).
A diversity professional is like the elephant in the room…no one is quite sure why they are there or what their role is within the organization. Furthermore, they are like the elephant in the room attempting to deftly play a piano that does not have eighty-eight keys, nor are the keys fixed. Therefore, the keys can increase or decrease at any time! With a much smaller and fluid piano, they are burdened with the lofty title of change agent. Being a change agent, however, is not possible unless the diversity practitioner is capable of visualizing the “bigger picture”, and grasping the “systemic nature” of the role (Griggs & Louw). Valuing and implementing diversity must become “…part of the total woodwork” (Griggs & Louw) of the organization encompassing all aspects, divisions, departments and functions. And in order to achieve what is called the “inclusion breakthrough” (Miller & Katz), it is essential to build the “…platform for change.”
As the elephant in the room attempting to play a non-88 keys fluid piano, the diversity practitioner endeavors to inculcate a platform for change through different kinds of music; some with tunes, some short, some uneasy, some not yet perfected, some great, and some just about there! Organizations and diversity practitioners might also at times be unsure as to which keys fit them best: the Equal Employment Opportunity Office, Multicultural Affairs, Affirmative Action, or a separate Office of Diversity? And since their role is not very well defined, they might not play music that is enjoyed. Thus the three main questions for diversity practitioners (or the elephants in the room attempting to play a non-88 keys fluid piano) to consider are: the types of music and the length; the department within which to play the music; the criteria to ensure that others appreciate the music; as well as other properties specific to the facility in which the music is playing.
Ever since the 1960s, diversity has become a catch phrase for ensuring compliance with U.S. laws. However, we know that today, in 2014, it’s not as much about having diverse people working in an organization; indeed, depending upon the type, location and demographics served, most organizations already have diverse employees. And having diverse employees has its own “…social expectation and value” (Kochan & et all).
However, the current need in the diversity world is “what are those companies doing with the diversity among its ranks? Are they utilizing their ideas and suggestions in product development or in a services capacity? Are they utilizing their cultural skills to reach out to larger or different market demographics?” (Nahal). Today it’s about ensuring that diversity practices benefit the organization and all diverse employees therein; the bottom line or the business case for diversity should be the driver. As Hubbard says, “Measuring the results of diversity initiatives will become a key strategic requirement to demonstrate its contribution to organization performance.”
At the level of organizational, individual and inter-personal interactions, diversity practitioners have therefore, to understand, comprehend, suggest, establish, implement, promote, sustain and plan for diversity best practices in the present and future. The piano keys are forever running, liked or not, but it’s the acceptance of their purpose that distinguishes one diversity practitioner from another. And to be a success, the diversity practitioner must be completely familiar with the organization’s mission, goals, purpose, practices, demographics, markets and suppliers.
The eighteen piano keys below enumerate, in my opinion, some of the roles of diversity practitioners; please feel free to add your own keys. Please note that in the keys below, I place event planner as one of my piano keys quite contrary to many who say that a diversity practitioner is not an event planner. Yes, that is not their sole role but it can be one of their tasks and a very valuable one indeed because festivities and food bring diverse people together into a room. Thus, the physical space shared can lead to other ways of positive interpersonal exchanges that benefit everyone. Some also say that their role is not that of a training manager, however, I have included that below as well. I consider diversity training to be an integral part of the diversity practitioner’s role– to learn, one must teach! Also, some say that HR is not their role; while this is true, diversity’s input and review of recruitment practices, hiring and termination policies might very well assist an organization in avoiding many embarrassing situations and law suits.
- Diversity change agent & setter of the organizational diversity imperative
- Diversity point person & resource provider
- Diversity liaison/organizational aligner
- Facilitator of leadership buy-in
- Diversity needs & risk assessor
- Diversity strategy planner
- Presenter of the diversity business case
- Overseer of the diversity council(s)/employee resource groups
- Diversity trainer & programs/events coordinator
- Reviewer of diversity appointments, professional development, hiring & termination practices
- Diversity conflict mediator
- Diversity budget planner
- Diversity financial manager
- Diversity advertising, marketing, & product developer
- Builder of interventions targeting diverse suppliers
- Diversity succession planner
- Diversity impact tracker and measurer
- Diversity evaluator, and initiator of current and future best practices
Therefore, a diversity practitioner is one in many. This does not imply undue interference in other departments or decisions. Instead it implies that if the diversity practitioner sees something discriminatory or unproductive for the organization and its employees, they will bring that to the attention of leadership and department/division heads. It also implies that the diversity practitioner will take the lead to suggest and implement — in partnership with other organizational stakeholders — best practices related to diversity. In turn therefore, becoming a change agent. Thus the elephant in the room can move from being a “costly not sure what to do with them” scenario to “I am very useful to the overall success of the organization and employees” scenario! The undefined but pertinent pianist never stops playing the diversity music! The elephant in the room cannot be ignored as long as it makes its presence felt, and as long as leadership is willing to recognize its intrinsic and true value.
Anita Nahal, Ph.D., CDP is a diversity consultant; former professor and assistant provost for international programs; an author and poet; and founder & chairperson of www.diversitydiscover.com You will find more information on her at: http://diversitydiscover.com/founder.html
Griggs, Lewis & Louw, Lente-Louise. (1995). Valuing Diversity: New Tools For A New Reality, 25-27.
Hubbard, Edward. (1999). How To Calculate Diversity Return-On-Investment, 3.
Kochan, Thomas & et all. Diversity in Business Performance: Report of the Diversity Research Network. Retrieved, February, 26, 2014 from: http://www.shrm.org/about/foundation/research/Documents/kochan_fulltext.pdf .
Miller, Frederick & Katz, Judith. (2002). The Inclusion Breakthrough: Unleashing The Real Power Of Diversity, 139.
Nahal, Anita. The Business Case For Diversity: The Need, Application and Training (NAT) Triangle. Retrieved, February 26, 2014 from: https://societyfordiversity.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/the-business-case-for-diversity-the-need-application-and-training-nat-triangle-by-anita-nahal-ph-d/ .
Najera, Hugo. Elements of Diversity: How Change Agents, Activists, Advocates, and Other Do-Gooders Seem to Not Get It Right After 40 Years of Trying. Retrieved, February 25, 2014 from: http://www.racialicious.com/2011/04/07/elements-of-diversity-how-change-agents-activists-advocates-and-other-do-gooders-seem-to-not-get-it-right-after-40-years-of-trying/ .
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* Deepak Chopra, The seven spiritual laws of success