The path to sustainable impact in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility
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The path to sustainable impact in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility

October 26, 2023

As the U.S. Supreme Court moved toward its decision on race-conscious admissions in higher education, many of the federal leaders we work with sought to bake diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility principles into agencywide operations to ensure DEIA functions have sufficient authority and seniority to promote their work and make a sustainable impact

Whether your federal agency has a chief diversity officer or not, where principal DEIA leaders and teams sit within your organization affects their access to mission-critical decision makers, resources and information. Without this access, the DEIA function will operate more like a tokenized cultural ambassador or a glorified social event planner, not a catalyst for better organizational performance and a more inclusive culture. 

The Partnership recently researched how DEIA functions are situated within two dozen agencies across government. We found that many of these functions could and should be placed on firmer ground to make a greater impact on their organizations. 

The usual suspects 

Of the 24 agencies we reviewed, seven have DEIA functions that report to the chief human capital officer.  

Ideally, all human capital practitioners would be trained in applying a DEIA lens to employment policies and employee lifecycle practices. However, the integration of DEIA principles into human capital certifications and training is not where it should be. Typically, DEIA also “addresses layers beyond what HR was ever meant to,” such as dealing with social issues, promoting anti-racism and supporting cultural competence growth that culminates in a more inclusive workplace.  

Three of the 24 agencies have DEIA functions that report to the civil rights or equal employment opportunity director. While a federal regulation mandates that the EEO director report to the agency head, these directors’ “workplace police” label often creates barriers as they work to strengthen equity.  

Finally, eight of the 24 agencies have DEIA functions that report to the agency head and another six have DEIA functions that report to an administrative or management executive.  

This placement provides more autonomy than the others, but still leaves DEIA vulnerable to changing political headwinds. To insulate DEIA from political bickering and gamesmanship, it would be wise to transform the chief diversity officer role into a chief employee experience officer, or a chief experience officer, that is responsible for all employee engagement with DEIA as a tenet.  

An independent DEIA office would also help DEIA teams “keep the main thing, the main thing,” and focus on their mission without worrying about competing priorities. Either way, it is critical that DEIA leadership roles evolve to avoid the convoluted distribution of workplace culture responsibilities between HR, EEO and DEIA. 

What can you do? 

If you are part of the process to decide where the DEIA function will sit within your agency, here are a couple of guiding questions to ask: 

  • Do we believe DEIA principles and practices catalyze a more inclusive culture and better mission delivery?
  • Are we making the decision based on the principal DEIA leader’s capabilities—or the lack thereof? If we are unsure of this leader’s capabilities, will we invest in strengthening them
  • Do employees trust your agency’s human capital and EEO offices? Would an independent DEIA function help to rejuvenate trust amongst employees, managers and recruited job candidates? 
  • Do your human capital or EEO offices have the capacity to fully integrate a DEIA function into their operations? Will this integration require an increase in budget and staff, or will it require existing staff to assume additional responsibilities? 

To answer these questions, engage stakeholders across the agency who work in different offices and functions. If your agency is committed to sustaining DEIA principles, a full organizational analysis may be necessary. Answering these prompts in just one or two meetings may mean you need to assess your workplace’s commitment to DEIA.  

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