If CEOs want to promote diversity, they have to ‘walk the talk’

posted on December 3, 2021

November 30, 2021 11.17am EST

CEOs have to show they’re serious about diversity for their human resources managers to do so. That could involve tying compensation to diversity targets.

In the business world, the adage often holds true: the buck stops at the desk of the chief executive officer. That’s the way accountability should work.

But does the proverbial buck start there too? If CEOs set the course for corporate priorities, values and intentions, will the rest of the organization follow suit?

CEOs have powerful leverage to drive organizational change — if they choose to use it. On the issue of workplace diversity and inclusion, corporate leadership so far has been a mixed bag. Despite the right words and intentions, progress has been slow.

Many CEOs seem to truly care about diversifying the makeup of their workforce, particularly those with daughters who, according to one study, tend to motivate their fathers to act in a socially responsible manner.

But even for those in front on the issue, it’s a challenge to convert good intentions to new realities in offices and on shop floors. Too often, responses are short term and reactive to explosive events rather than long term and systemic.

What explains this disconnect between words coming out of the C-suite and actions within organizations?

Managers, not CEOs, oversee diversity

In organizations, the people charged with implementing diversity, or any human resources policy, are managers, not senior executives.

Managers have a lot on their plates and considerable discretion on whether and how to implement organizational policies and practices.

They may hear their CEO say something positive about diversity and conclude that the CEO takes it seriously and that they must take it seriously as well. Or they may figure that the CEO is merely reading a script prepared by public relations teams and is going through the motions to please shareholders.

How managers assess their CEO’s true intentions are crucial to understanding whether an organization’s diversity agenda will be followed.

That is a key insight that came out of a study I conducted with Greg Sears from Carleton University. We looked at what CEOs say versus what they do. We surveyed their direct reports — vice-presidents and directors — and asked them to assess their CEOs’ commitment to diversity.

We were interested not in just what they heard but in what they observed in the CEOs’ actions. And then we studied the outcomes — the amount of diversity policies and practices being implemented.

CEOs must show they’re serious

We found that when HR managers perceived the CEO to be committed to diversity through visible actions, the organization reported more diversity initiatives. What the CEO says is important, but HR managers must perceive that the CEO is serious before they implement any of those policies. And CEOs must sustain that effort for HR managers to continue to be committed to diversity.

CEOs do not have to buy into the business value of workplace diversity to be effective leaders on this issue. Some are true believers and others aren’t. Or the organizations they lead may lack economic motives or public mandates.

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