The Chief Diversity Officer Will Be a New Kind of Executive, If We Let Them

BY Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | October 18, 2022

Among all of corporate America’s problems with job retention, one of the most concerning is the turnover in a newly prominent role: chief diversity officer. CDOs tend to stay in their roles only two to three years, about half the tenure of other C-suite officers. For many CDOs, as well as their colleagues, this is the result of one thing: frustration.

How did a role that so many companies created with great fanfare in the racial-justice movement of 2020 become a dispiriting job for many–and what can be done to improve the situation? From Day One talked with people who’ve held the job, as well as experts in the field, to get to the sources of the problem and look toward solutions.

To start with, the scope of the job is unlike almost any other top-leadership role. “Leading our inclusive culture efforts is an honor that requires a diverse skillset and the ability to anticipate the needs of a vast array of audiences,” said Vanice Hayes, chief culture, diversity and inclusion officer for Dell Technologies. “As rewarding as the job is, it can also be taxing. At times, it can feel like you're trying to solve world peace, like you’re a teacher, a counselor, a politician, a lawyer, a historian–you name it.”

A New Kind of Career Path

As befits a job that’s freshly emerging, there’s no traditional career path that leads to the CDO position. Read the resumes of ten chief technology officers, and you will see very similar backgrounds: advanced degrees in computer science or engineering, a track record building products or designing systems, years of experience managing tech workers and operations. The resumes of chief marketing officers and chief financial officers are similarly consistent. Even new C-suite additions, like chief information security officers and chief human resources officers, have identifiable backgrounds. By contrast, leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) who have spoken at From Day One events have included executives who began their careers in law enforcement and the ministry.

Graduate-school programs on how-to-be-a-CDO are still relatively new, points out Rachel Marcuse, the chief operating officer at ReadySet, a DEI-focused consulting firm. “That being said, we see successful CDOs come from varied backgrounds and experiences, including finance, HR, culture, and products or services. Deep expertise in DEI is crucial and can come from a combination of professional background, education, and lived experience.”

There is little consensus on the ideal resume for a chief diversity officer, but we may not need one. Andrés Tapia, the global DEI strategist at the management-consulting firm Korn Ferry, who was himself a pioneering CDO in the early 2000s, said that when he coaches clients on what to look for in a CDO, background doesn’t matter. He looks for someone who can think strategically, integrate perspectives, communicate well, and influence powerful people in the company. “Notice how non-functionally-specific those are,” Tapia said.

Though a handful CDOs have been around for decades, the majority have been in the role only a few years. The field is developing, and the recent swell in CDO appointments is in part a reaction to the ineffectiveness of the corporate DEI programs of the last 20 years. The old way may have been wrong, but it’s not clear what the new, right way will be. Still, DEI practitioners are looking in earnest.

“Coming into the role, depending on your previous perspective, you may think ‘I got this,’ but then when you get there, you realize it is quite expansive,” said Hayes. “Your previous perspective may have been both accurate and potentially narrow or limited in scope. So the way I handle that is just through focus: How do I make sure every single person that comes to work feels like they're included? Everyone should have the right to enjoy an inclusive work culture. That’s my baseline.”

Vanice Hayes, chief of culture, diversity and inclusion officer for Dell, will be speaking at From Day One’s Austin conference on Oct. 26 (Photo courtesy of Dell)

The chief diversity officer at Indiana University Health, Lisa Gutierrez, believes that without self-awareness, CDOs will repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. One of the biggest “is to only use your lived experience. A lot of people say, ‘Well, I have a lived experience.’ And I go, ‘I do too, but in the D&I space, it’s not just my lived experience, but everybody’s.’ The practice has gone to short-handing diversity work into just a couple of things,” she said. “If I were a newer practitioner right now, I’d be looking at what didn’t work in the past, and get into the front of the line of not doing that.”

Why CDO Is a Different Kind of C-Suite Job

Newly minted CDOs, whether or not they have the right experience or expectations, are not to blame for turnover. The C-suite has yet to accept that the CDO is a different kind of executive. Unlike other executives who own a department and run a P&L, the work of a CDO doesn’t happen in a single department, and there’s seldom an elaborate financial statement.

“We don’t own much,” said Channing Martin, who is the CDO at the advertising company IPG. “You’re being held responsible for diverse talent coming in the organization, but you don’t own recruiting. You’re being held responsible for developing underrepresented talent or women being promoted, but you don’t own L&D, you don’t own talent management.”

The job, then, is influencing other executives to make DEI a long-term priority. “What works is when the leaders who run P&Ls start to own responsibility for DEI. That’s a game changer,” Martin said.

Tapia has found that in some cases, the C-suite appoints a CDO without much thought to qualifications or expectations because a figurehead, not an executive who influences global operations, is what the CEO wants. As a result, the key performance indicators for the role are simplistic: we want more people of color, we want more women leaders.

When this is the case, the CEO isn’t likely to value long-term strategy, and the work becomes programmatic. “If you’re not a strategic thinker, you’re going to become a tactical leader,” Tapia said. “The death knell of D&I is a tactical leader in charge because D&I lends itself to a lot of very fun programs, a lot of tactics,” Tapia said. “But they don’t bring about transformation.”

Executives like the sound of “unconscious bias training,” but “the nonsexy stuff is a structural and policy change that takes a long time,” said Martin. For example, designing a global system for employee self-identification. “That’s tedious and time-consuming and not fun. It requires legal insight, the risk team, the privacy team, the HR team, and the IT team to transform technology systems. Those are the things that really change an organization, but that could take a year and a half, two years.”

The programmatic CDO is also reduced to being reactionary. “You shouldn’t have to wait for somebody’s murder to be designing social-justice strategies,” Gutierrez said.

The Importance of Learning the Business

Many companies underestimate the amount of business acumen CDOs need. “Now you’ve got employment lawyers that are becoming HR leaders. You’ve got MBAs that are becoming HR leaders. As the HR function is being asked to be more of a business operation, you’ve got to have a skill set that can make that happen. And I think the same is going to be true for the diversity function,” said Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain, a virtual HR training platform.

Chief diversity officers can be more effective by immersing themselves in their organization’s business, like those in the role of “HR business partner.” Said Gutierrez: “You have to understand the business of the business. The CDO has to fold themself into the natural rhythm of the business and find opportunities to change it.” For example, Gutierrez said that the “rhythm” of one of her previous employers was the Six Sigma framework for process improvement. “Six Sigma is about reducing variation. Diversity is about increasing variation, but in the methodology there are places to build variation in.”

When ReadySet advises on CDO appointments, Marcuse said, “we want CDOs to really understand the organizational mission or business and have substantial leadership or executive experience.”

Martin acknowledges how hard it is to set meaningful quantitative goals when there is no P&L. “There’s a standard of corporate governance, there’s standards around strong financial analysis. There’s no standard in DEI,” she said.

Measuring effects on employee behavior is a good place to start. For example, instead of counting the number of people who participate in unconscious-bias training, Martin says, look for the results, like when employees are celebrated on a peer-to-peer recognition platform, “how many people are responding when a woman is recognized, vs. a man?”

What are the stakes involved in CDO success? Aarti Shyamsunder, the global head of DEI at Accenture’s YSC Consulting, told Fortune recently that the cost of CDO turnover is significant, even if it may beunquantifiable. The loss is more than one of dollars and cents, “it’s about the message that it sends out, the loss of reputation, the suspicion or fear that it might cause, especially in minority group members’ minds. With all these sorts of intangible costs, it’s impossible to put an amount on it,” she said.

Tapia believes a good CDO sets the tone. “A smart, strategic, influential CDO will say to the leaders, ‘I’m happy to take the role. I am your right person, but I’m not the one that’s going to change it. You are. I’m going to work with your CEO and the C-suite because the only ones that can change anything in this organization in terms of culture and processes and priorities are the C-suite.’”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.


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ADHD in the Workplace: What You Should Know–and What Can Help

Pete came to our weekly psychotherapy session frustrated with work. He had just returned to his office, post pandemic, and found the new, open plan noisy and overwhelming. Pete, which is not his real name, has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and is easily distractible and sensitive to noise. He had trouble concentrating, was irritated by the constant chatter of colleagues, and, as a result, was feeling less productive.“Could you talk to your manager about getting some accommodations?” I asked.“No way!” he said. “That would be a career killer.”Pete’s wariness is not uncommon. A few of my psychotherapy patients with ADHD have confided in their managers, but most feel it’s unwise to do so. They fear they will be stigmatized and sidelined.Edward Hallowell, M.D., agrees with their concern. The founder of the Hallowell ADHD Centers and one of the leading authorities on the disorder, explained to From Day One: “We’re not there yet. Most corporate professionals think of ADHD as some kind of mental illness.”Given that ADHD is not well-understood in the workplace, how can employees speak up about their needs in a way that feels safe? And how can managers and HR leaders better understand how to respond to those needs–whether employees want to name their ADHD, or not? A well-accommodated employee is, after all, a happier and more productive one. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to remove obstacles to someone’s performance,” said Hallowell. Here’s what experts recommend:Know What It IsADHD is a neuro-developmental disorder characterized by symptoms of restlessness, impulsivity and difficulty sustaining attention to boring tasks. It tends to run in families and is often inherited from a parent. There are three types: inattentive (dreamy and distractible), hyperactive-impulsive (restless and talkative), and a combination of the two. Most adults with ADHD have the inattentive type. Though it was long considered to be a childhood disorder affecting mostly boys, research has shown that it persists into adulthood—about 30% to 70% of children with ADHD continue to have symptoms later in life.Ned Hallowell, M.D., a pre-eminent expert on ADHD (Photo courtesy of the Hallowell ADHD Centers)An undiagnosed adult may think of themselves as spacey, messy, or undisciplined—and they often suffer from low self-esteem. A recent study found that only 10% to 25% of adults with ADHD receive an accurate diagnosis and adequate treatment. “They are often inaccurately diagnosed with anxiety or depression, which are really just the fallout of untreated ADHD,” said Ari Tuckman, a psychologist in West Chester, Penn., who specializes in the treatment of ADHD. As Hallowell puts it: “It’s like driving on square wheels.” In dealing with tasks, you will make progress, but it may take longer.And That the Diagnosis Is On the RiseWhile children are still the most likely group to be identified with the disorder, the number of adult diagnoses has been rising for decades. The pandemic accelerated the trend: the overall incidence in adults (30 to 49 years old) nearly doubled from 2020 to 2022, fueled mainly by an increase in diagnoses among women, according to Epic Research, a medical-record software company. While it’s not clear exactly why women are being diagnosed more often, experts theorize that it may be due to increasing smartphone and technology use, which can amplify distractibility and stress, as well as a greater awareness that ADHD can be also be a women’s issue. As more adults are diagnosed, they—like Pete—often face workplaces that are not ADHD-literate.How It Affects Work Performance–But Not Always in a Bad WayPeople with the disorder may have difficulty with organization, time management and procrastination—all of which can make it hard to meet deadlines and work within teams. They find tedious tasks, such as scheduling and filling out expense reports, unusually challenging and have a different sense of time than others. “People with ADHD have more difficulty seeing time and feeling the future,” notes Tuckman,More than half (56%) of adults with ADHD said they believe the disorder “strongly impacts their ability to succeed at work,” according to a 2008 survey by McNeil Pediatrics. A more recent survey by Akili, a therapeutic-technology company, interviewed 500 adults with ADHD and found that employees with ADHD felt the disorder had a negative impact on their career.     And yet, people with ADHD often display qualities that work in their favor, notes Hallowell, who himself has ADHD. He sees the condition as a trait, not a disorder, that has positive benefits like creativity, humor, and spontaneity. “There’s more to it than most people realize,” he said. “ADHD is terrible term. We have an abundance of attention. Our challenge is where to put our focus.” People with ADHD can spend hours on topics that interest them and see details that others might miss, a trait sometimes called hyperfocus. Many successful people have talked openly about their ADHD, including Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, James Carville, astronaut Scott Kelly and JetBlue founder David Neeleman.How to Get DiagnosedIf you persistently miss deadlines, are chronically late, and feel like staying organized is a big effort, first ask a trusted friend or colleague if they find you more scattered than others. Then, make an appointment to see a psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in treating the condition. There is no one standardized test—instead a professional will take a thorough history and may ask family members and friends to complete questionnaires about your behavior. You may be asked questions like, How often do you misplace items, feel bored and restless, or lose track of what needs to be done? If you meet the criteria, your doctor may talk to you about medication, therapy or coaching and, if needed, provide a diagnosis so you can receive accommodations at school or at work.Understand What HelpsMost people diagnosed with ADHD rely on medication to control their symptoms. Typical medications include stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall, which increase the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. There are also non-stimulant drugs such as Strattera. Stimulant medications that treat ADHD are the “most effective of medications in psychiatry,” said Tuckman, and help tame distractibility and impulsivity. About two thirds of people with ADHD diagnoses are prescribed stimulant medications, and that percentage has remained fairly consistent since 2013, according to Epic Research. Some people can help manage their symptoms by exercising regularly, getting proper sleep, and implementing strict organization and reminder systems. Or they hire very competent assistants.Once you are diagnosed and have figured out the best treatment, it’s like “getting fitted for the right eyeglasses,” said Dr. Hallowell. “Things come into sharper focus.”How to Make the Workplace More ADHD-FriendlySmall modifications can go a long way to helping people with ADHD perform better on the job. Tuckman suggests considering adjustments in the three domains described below. As an employee, you can make tweaks on your own or ask your manager for help. As for managers, if you have a worker who is struggling with organization and meeting deadlines, you could take the lead at putting these practices into place.Make distractions softer. Quiet spaces, headphones, and working on off-hours (say, early or late), can help mitigate the clatter of a bustling office. Often working from home is a good solution.Make important information stand out from the chatter. Putting assignments in writing, recording meetings, and highlighting deadlines can help workers whose focus is not great to stay on task.Bring the future closer to the present. Those who struggle with adhering to deadlines will benefit when big projects are broken into smaller chunks, and check-ins are on the calendar with frequent reminders of when tasks are due.So, Should You Tell Your Boss?If you have ADHD, you may be covered under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). However, you might not want to play that card unless you absolutely must, says Belynda Gauthier, a retired HR director and past president of Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD). “The first time I did a presentation on ADHD in the workplace, I launched into detail about how the employee should approach his supervisor or manager and suggested that he might want to go directly to HR first. An audience participant interrupted to tell me that her HR office actually is the problem for her. Oops! I took this to heart, did some serious thinking, and revamped my presentation. I no longer recommend revealing one’s diagnosis until and unless it’s necessary.” Indeed, 92% of surveyed adults with ADHD believe that their colleagues hold misconceptions, the most common of which is “people with ADHD just need to try harder.” A better strategy might be to simply approach your manager with a positive attitude and a few solutions. “Be sure to tell them what you are good at,” advised Hallowell.Gauthier suggests something like: “I am really enjoying processing these widgets, and I think I’m doing a good job. I believe I could do an even better job if I could move to that cubicle that’s farther from the copy machine. So many co-workers use it all day and everyone stops to say hello.” Avoid the use of the word “but” to qualify your suggestions and don’t be whiney, she says.      Accommodations can help, but sometimes the best solution is finding the right job in the right environment with the right supports. “When I finally figured out I had it, it was a relief,” David Neeleman said in a recent interview with Forbes. “I was just really careful to surround myself with people that could complement my ADHD. I have people around me that help implement a lot of the ideas I have.” When you can turn your intense focus on something that truly fascinates you, ADHD can be a bonus rather a deficit.Lesley Alderman, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and journalist based in Brooklyn, NY. In her therapy practice, she works with individuals and couples. She writes about mental health topics for the Washington Post and has been an editor at Money and Real Simple magazines and a health columnist for the New York Times.(Featured photo by Valentin Russanov/iStock by Getty Images) 

Lesley Alderman, LCSW | May 15, 2024

Workers Want Weight-Loss Drugs, But How Can Employers Pay the Bills?

When consumers see splashy TV commercials for weight-loss drugs, they often find the the pitch irresistible. But for HR and benefits executives, they may trigger an uneasy feeling. That's because the revolutionary weight-loss drugs like Wegovy bring with them both magic and mystery–the magic is how well they can work; the mystery is how to pay for them.GLP-1, or glucagon-like peptide-1, drugs have historically been used to treat diabetes. But the development of stronger drugs like Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic in recent years, and now the approval of Wegovy and Eli Lilly’s Zepbound specifically for weight management, has led to a sharp increase in demand. That’s particularly true as more research emerges showing the drugs may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and potentially bring other long-term health benefits. Yet the medications can cost as much as $1,000 to $1,500 per month–a price that few Americans can afford unless they have generous health-insurance coverage.And unlike expensive drugs for rare conditions, the potential number of patients for GLP-1s is vast. More than 40% of Americans have obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that is expected to reach 50% by 2030.Many doctors are thrilled about the potential for GLP-1s to change how obesity is treated, but that puts employers–where nearly half of Americans get their health insurance–in a tricky position. Here’s what employers need to know as they consider coverage for these drugs in the quickly changing landscape:High Costs, Low CoverageWhile employer health plans widely cover GLP-1s for the purpose of treating diabetes, coverage for weight-loss purposes is much more spotty right now. A survey last fall by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that 27% of 205 employers covered GLP-1s for weight loss and another 13% did not yet cover them but were considering adding coverage. Meanwhile, Willis Towers Watson (WTW), a global insurance benefits-consulting company that serves many large employers, found about 38% of employers it surveyed cover the weight-loss drugs. Those that do cover them are seeing significant cost increases. The retail price for Wegovy comes out to $15,000 to $16,000 per year, and after rebates and discounts from manufacturers, health plans still pay about $9,000 per year, says Cody Midlam, a director at WTW’s pharmacy practice. The cost per member per month for GLP-1s has doubled each of the last three years, according to WTW’s analysis, amounting to an extra $11 per member per month last year, or about 9% of all pharmacy costs.Companies are aware of the research showing the drugs’ effectiveness at tackling obesity. Yet while doctors say that helping people lose weight could lead to less cardiovascular disease, fewer mental health issues, and savings from avoiding knee replacements or other surgeries related to obesity, long-term data on clinical outcomes remains limited. With high employee turnover in many industries, it’s tough for these employers to factor in potential future savings in healthcare costs over the life of the employee.“Those outcomes take a very long time to manifest,” says Midlam. “It’s not something that’s easily measurable on a short timescale when plan decisions are being made.” Andrew Witty, CEO of UnitedHealth Group, the largest U.S. insurer, said his corporate clients see the benefits, but first have to deal with the short-term costs. “We’re very positive about the potential for another tool in the toolbox to help folks manage their weight. We recognize that has potential benefits,” Witty said in the third-quarter earnings call last year. “But we’re struggling.”Employers Meet the DemandDespite the high costs and headlines about some insurance plans scrapping GLP-1 coverage, plenty of employers see the upside to covering the new obesity medications. Ninety-nine percent of companies already covering GLP-1s said they planned to continue doing so next year, according to a fall survey from Accolade, a healthcare navigation and advocacy company. Employers reported that after they added GLP-1 coverage, they saw higher employee satisfaction, increased engagement in other well-being programs, and improvements in other or comorbid health conditions. Midlam of WTW says his firm’s corporate clients want to “avoid member disruption” wherever possible.Doctors agree that should be a priority. Dan Azagury, M.D., medical director for the Stanford Lifestyle and Weight Management Center, says GLP-1s have been a “game changer” for many of his patients. “If you stop it overnight, whether it’s insurance, or financial, or shortages, the rebound is ferocious,” he said. “So it’s really very frustrating that they encounter that situation.” Some companies have expressed concerns about the idea of paying for a drug that employees essentially have to take forever to maintain its benefits. But while side effects, including vomiting and gastrointestinal issues, can be unpleasant for some people, doctors like Azagury say they know how to help patients manage them, and that they are seeing more patients have a positive response to GLP-1s than to previous generations of weight loss medications. Holistic Care, Not Just PrescriptionsEven when employers decide they want to help their employees lose weight, there are still lots of details to consider. As companies approach designing their insurance plans for 2025 and beyond, they are trying to figure out how many employees are likely to use GLP-1 drugs if coverage is offered, whether there should be limits on who can get the drugs, and what kind of requirements they should use to prove the drugs are medically necessary. Most companies that cover GLP-1s use some cost-control strategies, according to the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey. Many use prior authorization, step therapy during which patients must try lower-cost drugs first, or specific eligibility requirements.Typically, eligibility requirements have been tied to the standards on the FDA labels for these medications. But some employers are considering restrictions such as only covering the drugs for people with obesity but not those who are overweight, says Tracy Spencer, a pharmacy practice leader for benefits consultant Aon. If they add those limits, she warns that employers should be aware that could change or jeopardize the rebates they get from the drug manufacturers, so they need to predict whether the savings they get from limiting the drugs’ use will offset the loss of the rebates.Benefits consultants like Aon and WTW are also seeing employers shift the way they look at GLP-1 drugs to view them as one piece in a broader strategy to address cardio-metabolic issues.That might mean employers choose to cover the drugs for targeted indications, such as covering Wegovy not for weight loss on its own, but for people with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, which Medicare recently announced it would do. It can also mean pairing GLP-1 coverage with required lifestyle modifications or participation in a virtual weight-loss or coaching program. Employers often have access to virtual health programs through their pharmacy benefit managers, and many have tried these to target diabetes in recent years. The biopharmaceutical company Moderna, which offers coverage of GLP-1s for diabetes and weight management, is one company that has tried this strategy. “In 2023 we saw a spike related to weight-loss management: We looked at claims data, and after mental health, obesity and weight management were the second drivers,” Jeffrey Stohlberg, Moderna’s director of corporate benefits, said at a From Day One conference earlier this year. So the company started using the virtual weight-loss management program Wondr Health, where an employee can work with a physician specializing in weight loss. “It’s not a path to GLP-1s, but [the physicians] can provide medication for that person,” Stohlberg said. Labcorp also announced in February that it would provide U.S. employees on GLP-1s with virtual care and medication management through WeightWatchers for Business. Other companies such as Omada Health and telehealth providers like Teladoc and Ro have launched similar offerings over the last year. Medical providers agree that a holistic approach is needed, but Angela Fitch, M.D., president of the Obesity Medicine Association and co-founder and chief medical officer of the obesity-focused primary care startup knownwell, worries that requiring a standard weight-management program for every person is another barrier and potentially a waste of money if the program doesn’t have solid evidence behind it.“You can offer lifestyle [strategies] in addition to medication,” she said, “but it should be driven by that shared decision making discussion with the clinician.” If insurers want to make sure patients are getting holistic care, she would rather have them require patients to get their prescriptions from a qualified physician who does a true evaluation so that solutions can be personalized. In her role with the Obesity Medicine Association, Fitch often advises employers on their health plan designs, so she understands that costs are a major concern for companies. But in her primary-care practice and others like it, she says her staff are “burning out” as they spend hours each day trying to navigate all the new and often strict and confusing insurance requirements for these medications. “We have got to deal with costs,” Fitch said. “But it should be transparent and flexible.” She worries that overly rigid restrictions are “adding to the bias and stigma of obesity” by signaling to patients that their weight is their responsibility to treat on their own. Her major advice is to view obesity with the nuance that people view other chronic conditions. “You do not need a GLP-1 management solution. You need a comprehensive obesity-care solution.”Abigail Abrams is a health writer and editor. Currently she is the senior manager of content operations for Atria. Previously, she was a staff writer on health and politics for TIME magazine. Her freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, and other publications.

Abigail Abrams | April 15, 2024

What Transparency Can Expose: an Obvious Need for Organizational Change

In the realm of corporate values, few terms have been more universally embraced in recent years than the notion of transparency. Among its many applications, organizations have deployed it to contend with sticky social matters and public scrutiny of corporate ethics.  At the World Economic Forum’s annual conference in Davos this year, speakers repeated the term like a mantra, reflecting a movement that has been building for a while. Fast Company reported that at the summit in 2021, more than 60 businesses announced a “commitment to transparency” about their effects on society and the environment. In response to pressure from stakeholders on all sides, executives from TikTok, Glassdoor, Google, YouTube, Zoom, Boeing, Twitter, and the White House have all made public commitments to transparency in recent years.Yet lately it has been dawning on leaders that this magic, window-cleaning solution can make things worse, especially if what has been exposed seems to be hypocritical, poorly thought-out, or further obfuscation rather than moral clarity. The most notorious recent example came last December, when the presidents of Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania gave hedged, lawyerly responses when asked in a congressional hearing whether calls for the genocide of Jewish people would violate their school’s conduct rules. Their answers frustrated stakeholders on many sides of the issue.Seeing the havoc that failed transparency can wreak, Harvard is second-guessing the value of transparency, and is considering keeping mum on divisive matters altogether. The Harvard Crimson reported in February that the school’s interim president is expected to announce that the school is considering a policy of “institutional neutrality,” in which it will make no statements on politicized matters. Leaders at other universities are in favor, it appears. During a recent panel discussion on the matter, Yale Law School professor Robert C. Post remarked that “when we speak outside of our lane, we invite reprisals, we invite regulations, which we cannot defend in terms of our mission,” he said. “There may be reasons to do it. But they have to be pretty good reasons because we’re vulnerable, we're especially vulnerable right now.” The public is not ready to retire the notion of transparency, however, so organizations need to take a more considered approach to it and the policies that it exposes. “Corporate values aren’t optional, and they’re more controversial and contested than ever,” writes Alison Taylor in her new book Higher Ground: How Business Can Do the Right Thing in a Turbulent World. “[Yet] aiming to base your values on commitments on the full range of stakeholder pressures and demands is a recipe for incoherence and fragmentation.”This has become the principal dilemma for leaders who want to run an ethical business, argues Taylor, a clinical associate professor at the NYU Stern School of Business. “It shows up in HR teams doing employee engagement surveys and trying to make themselves look good. It shows up in these glossy sustainability reports about all the wonderful things [the company] is doing,” Taylor told From Day One. “The thing that has changed is that those defenses don’t work anymore.”The Age of Clarity and CandorThe theory is that if you bare it all, the company will be rewarded for its candor. “If a single concept drives today’s businesses, regulators, journalists, and NGO activists, it’s that transparency is the route to accountability,” Taylor writes in her book. Yet all this new data-dumping, press-releasing, and report-publishing hasn’t necessarily reconciled what companies say vs. what they do, though trust in business has generally grown over the years, especially when compared with trust in government. Yet company after company, ranging from Boeing to Wells Fargo, have taken a shellacking for saying that they’ve fixed problems when they haven’t actually changed the culture or system that caused harm in the first place.In fact, disclosure is easily weaponized, Taylor argues. The companies that release details of their ethical transgressions or corporate misconduct can put the target on their own backs. In her book, Taylor tells of the story of a clothing company, operating in an industry known for its negative environmental effects and human-rights violations, that published a list of its suppliers in the spirit of transparency. They were among the first picked off as the target of a class-action lawsuit alleging forced labor. “The retailer making a good faith effort to be responsible and accountable was first in line for denunciation and punishment,” Taylor writes.Contending with a Public Wary of Good IntentionsAs companies see that their attempt at transparency can get them in trouble, many flatten their reporting into glossy packets and palatable stories. Some disclosures are required by law, yet by and large, these reports are voluntary. To steel themselves against criticism, especially involved tricky issues, many organizations appoint leaders charged with improving company culture and creating a more equitable workplace: chief culture officers, heads of compliance and integrity, and leaders of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). To be sure, many who sit in these offices are formidable forces. Figures like Yelp’s chief diversity officer, Miriam Warren, and Bumble’s founder Whitney Wolfe Herd set high bars for the influence executives can have on equity and integrity inside and outside an organization.But some of the leaders installed in these roles are faced with the uncomfortable truth that their position is corporate PR. Taylor sees this often: People take jobs and think of themselves as organizational change agents, only to find that senior leaders think of them as defense mechanisms to protect corporate reputation and, in the case of compliance teams, to deflect regulators.For instance, the chief diversity officer is typically charged with making the business more demographically diverse and equitable for people across every department at every level of the business, yet many of them work with very limited resources. It's no wonder that turnover for the job is high.From Token Hire to Meaningful InfluenceOnce a company decides that it won’t favor transparency more than change, good things start to happen. This is when those leaders originally appointed as tokens can use their positions. If Taylor were to find herself in a role and learn that her presence was manipulative PR, she said, “I would make an argument about transparency needing to adapt the organization to a new generation. You can’t control the narrative, so hiring a load of people to do window dressing has become a waste of money. We can’t rely on confidentiality agreements, and we can’t rely on telling a good story.”Companies have to assume that young workers in particular are ready to undercut nice, neat stories and pounce on corporate misdirection, she says. Where a glossy report no longer suffices, those once-impotent appointees can play a valuable role, holding the company accountable from the inside before an angry public holds them accountable in the open air.Now that the public is suspicious of public declarations of corporate goodness, “no one believes it. There’s a total ‘gotcha’ mindset. Everyone rolls their eyes, and now there’s all this greenwashing and woke-washing litigation,” Taylor said. “It’s a pointless investment. You need to stop treating these as messaging challenges and treat them as organizational strategy challenges.”‘A Less Varnished Assessment of Activities’Taylor’s Higher Ground is loaded with case studies, action outlines, and advice. Not only for avoiding corporate blunders, but also correcting the bad habits and outright crookedness that cause them. Be a “first mover,” setting the example for peers, she writes. Companies often wait until a public scandal to start talking, but this tends to create chaos. She cites the example of Google releasing its transparency report on how it works with law enforcement in 2010. “This was not the result of a specific scandal but an effort to correct widespread misunderstanding.” Its success was due in part to the company being clear about what it can and cannot influence.Sure, there will be companies that invite scrutiny with their reporting, but that’s why Taylor warns against bending too deeply to public opinion and impatience that lures firms into dangerous waters. Don’t succumb to the pressures of social media, which turn companies into reaction engines, she advises. Wait long enough, and sensationalized social-media storms pass. Similarly, transparency often generates “impatient calls for an issue to be addressed instantly,” when real change takes time.Finally, forget about having 100% control over the stories told about your company and control over the behavior of your employees, which some companies increasingly see as liabilities, as evidenced by the new popularity of surveillance tools.Taylor believes that many corporate leaders sincerely want to avoid superficial reporting and put-on commitments to transparency. In five years of speaking to investors about sustainability reports, Taylor writes, “they told me again and again how much they–and their companies–would benefit from a less-varnished assessment of activities.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the BBC, the Washington Post, Quartz, and Fast Company.(Featured illustration by Fermate/iStock by Getty Images)

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | March 24, 2024