Image: iStockphoto/LuckyBusiness

In mid-September, Salesforce hired Tony Prophet as its first chief equality officer, following in the footsteps of tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft.

These moves seem to indicate a desire for companies to diversify their workforce–which, in the tech industry, are overwhelmingly white and male.

While chief diversity and equality officers were rare a decade ago, today, about one in five Fortune 1000 companies has one. Airbnb, Dropbox, Pinterest, and Twitter have all filled diversity manager positions in the past year.

These officers usually report directly to the CEO, and are in charge of everything it takes to increase the diversity and inclusion within an organization, according to workplace diversity expert Sondra Thiederman, who has worked on diversity initiatives at several Fortune 500 companies. This might range from evaluating recruitment, training, and other systems to changing policies.

The main reason for the rise in diversity-focused roles? A number of studies demonstrate how a more diverse workforce drives up a company’s revenue, Thiederman said.

“The most successful companies are linking diversity to the business case, so people don’t assume it’s merely a soft skill,” Thiederman said. “In order to be innovative, you have to have on your staff people who think differently from each other.”

SEE: Transgender employees in tech: Why this “progressive” industry has more work to do to achieve true gender inclusivity (TechRepublic cover story)

A Harvard Business Review study found that companies with a diverse set of leaders were 45% more likely to improve their market share, and 70% more likely to capture a new market, than those with less diverse leaders. And a Forbes survey of large global enterprises found that 85% of executives agreed or strongly agreed that diversity was crucial to fostering innovation in their workplace.

A team with a wide variety of life experiences offers more creative tension, Thiederman said, and causes everyone to work harder at the process and come up with new ideas. This is the main reason diverse companies tend to fare better, along with better representing the needs of more customers, she said.

Many companies talk about diversifying their workforce and becoming more socially responsible, but very few of them follow through with actions, said Steven Ostrowski, director of corporate communications at CompTIA. “The only way to get great people is to invest in workforce, diversity and social responsibility,” Ostrowski said. “You are not going to get the talent you want unless you have those types of commitments.”

Rethinking the traditional workforce

SAP, which employs 80,000 people worldwide, hired former economist Anka Wittenberg as chief diversity and inclusion officer three years ago. “Being an economist and really seeing how diversity and inclusion have a clear impact on the bottom line is something so important to acknowledge,” Wittenberg said.

The company has had a diversity manager since 2006. When Wittenberg started, she developed a three-to-five year strategy, identifying four focus areas for the company: Gender intelligence, generational intelligence, cultures and identity, and differently-abled or disabled people.

When Wittenberg came on board, SAP committed to filling 25% of leadership roles with females by 2017. In 2013, 19.8% of these roles were women. Today, 24.1% are women, and the company is on track to meet the goal by next year, Wittenberg said.

The company also saw improved attitudes about gender: In 2011, 29% of employees said they do not believe men and women have equal opportunities. In 2016, only 16% said that was the case. “There is still unconscious bias in organizations,” Wittenberg said. “We do need measurements to ensure we understand where our blind spots are.”

In the past year, as more refugees entered Germany (where SAP is headquartered), Wittenberg’s team expanded its cultures and identity diversity grouping to include them. In 2016, the company created 100 internship positions for refugees, all of which were filled, and several were hired full time. SAP also committed to hiring more than 600 people diagnosed with autism by 2020.

SAP has more than 329,000 customers across 190 countries. “We need to reflect the diversity of our customers to understand their needs,” Wittenberg said. “This is not a ‘nice-to-have.’ It helps us be successful in a sustainable way as a business.”

The daily role

Michelle Angier was hired as chief diversity officer at Intuit in December 2015. When starting the job, she first set meetings with a broad array of stakeholders, including the leaders of Intuit’s 11 employee networks (such as the Pride Network and the Women’s Network) and their executive sponsors, as well as partners outside the companies. “Listening to others really helped me to get a sense of what was working well and where there was potential to do more,” Angier said.

The type of projects a diversity and inclusion leader might tackle differ greatly depending on the company, Angier said. “I have done everything from be a strategic planner, which includes developing and soliciting CXO buy-in for a company-wide strategic plan, to playing the role of counselor/negotiator, where I help people navigate deeply personal and emotional situations,” she said.

Integrating inclusion

At Kaiser Permanente, a strategic framework for diversity and inclusion is integrated into the company’s organizational business strategy. The company is currently ranked No. 1 on DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity listing.

Dr. Ronald Copeland, Kaiser Permanente’s senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, works on improving care delivery services to consumers, to ensure they are culturally and linguistically appropriate, and developing diverse talent for leadership roles within the company.

“Like any other mission-critical business function, this role can create competitive advantage with respect to performance, talent acquisition, innovation, consumer experience, corporate citizen brand and regulatory compliance,” Copeland said.

“Tech decision-makers should know that in a chief diversity and inclusion officer, they have a strategic partner, consultant and content expert around the intersection of diverse thought, ethnicity, culture and life experience, with innovative solutions to complex problem solving,” he added.

Steps for success

A chief diversity or equality officer should have the following mandate, according to Ji-A Min, head data scientist for

  • Analyze the demographics of the workforce.
  • Conduct a diversity audit of the company’s current practices and policies for recruiting, hiring, training, compensation, and promotion in terms of their strengths and challenges.
  • Assess the practices and perceptions of inclusion and tolerance among employees.
  • Identify quantifiable, measurable diversity KPIs to set. For example, equalize the pay between male and female employees of the same tenure, level, and performance within three months.
  • Using evidence-based methods, identify and remove potential biases in recruiting and hiring that may be ignoring, turning off, or accidentally discriminating against qualified, diverse candidates and measure the impact before and after.
  • Using evidence-based methods, identify and equalize gaps in training, compensation, and promotion opportunities and measure the impact before and after.
  • Demonstrate the ROI of workplace diversity by linking diversity data to business outcomes such as increased revenue.

Companies might consider hiring a chief diversity or equality officer when they meet the threshold for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission compliance with 100 employees, Min said. “However, these practices can be put into place as soon as a problem is identified in the workplace related to diversity and inclusion,” he said.

Should you hire a diversity officer?

In determining whether or not your company needs a diversity manager, consider what outcomes you want to see in the next three to five years, Angier suggests. “If diversity and inclusion is part of that conversation, then you have your answer,” she said.

Those searching for a chief diversity officer should seek someone whose skill set includes strategy development, influencing skills, emotional intelligence, communication, and change management, Angier said.

However, executives should be warned that hiring a diversity officer is not an instant solution for mitigating biases, Angier said. “There is no silver bullet for solving a complex array of social issues and dynamics inside any one company,” she said. “There are many complex issues at play, many of which are societal, and they intersect with the business, the organizational culture and personal dynamics. This is a journey we are all on together.”

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Over the past decade, many tech leaders have hired chief diversity and equality officers to handle company diversity efforts in recruiting, training, and retaining employees.
  2. A number of studies demonstrate how a more diverse workforce increases a company’s bottom line, and encourages innovation.
  3. However, hiring a chief diversity officer is not a silver bullet for a diversity problem, and tech companies need to make cultural changes over time to become more inclusive.