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What Skills Are Valuable in DEI-focused Roles?

Updated: Feb 22

image of multi-colored people cutouts in a circle with the text "Powerful skills for DEI Roles"

Roles centered around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (as well as other focuses such as liberation, justice, and accessibility) have been growing exponentially these past 3 years. In part for the explosion in demand was the summer of racial injustice where the recent killings of Black individuals such as Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in the U.S. Other catalysts have been the diversity of the workforce and what employees value in a company. And those catalysts are definitely spawning more DEI jobs.

According to Indeed in 2021, jobs in Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging have risen 123% between September 2019 and September 2020. Since then, organizations have been continuing to recognize the importance of advancing DEI, especially as Gen Z is heavily prioritizing DEI and the associated company values in deciding where to work.

In a recent 2022 Workplace DEI Report from Cultureamp, their research found that:

  • Though nearly 60% of companies reported not having any DEI specialist role, 40% said they are investing in building out the specialized expertise needed to build successful equity & inclusion programs.

  • These roles also tend to be new: 80% of DEI roles have been hired in the last 18 months, meaning that most companies are at the beginning of their change journeys and we may yet see additional progress.

It's optimistic that more organizations are investing in DEI staffing and bringing in specialists, however, as I review the slew of DEI roles in both Indeed and LinkedIn and their job descriptions, I'm bugged with a question that's plagued me for a while:

How do these organizations know what qualifications are needed in a DEI-specific role, when the company itself is just starting its own DEI & Anti-racism journey?

This is especially troubling when we also learn from CultureAmp's report that:

Passion is not enough.

This is pretty telling that a majority of these organizations are at the very beginning stages of their DEI work. Do they even know what skills and knowledge are valuable for committing and executing DEI strategies?

Some may be working with a reputable DEI consultant in order to create and help hire for the role, which would be a good call. Having an outside perspective with a DEI subject matter expert can be helpful in reviewing job descriptions, serving on the hiring panel or even assist in forming the interview questions. For those staffing on their own, I have concerns that can further delay their progress.

Problems of DEI staffing without Adequate guidance

It's valuable to remember that no two roles are alike because the DEI needs for an organization are unique. Your job description should definitely not just speak to what you want, but as an organization what you need. Without a candid review of your organization, you may not really know what you need, which can leave gaps in what your company needs to focus on to move the needle.

This could also be the reason there are so many "cookie-cutter" job descriptions in this space, with duties that don't really fit the role and qualifications that are either too vague or far too heavy for the role they are trying to hire. You need to ask what skills are needed to execute the duties and responsibilities you're asking of the role and pay accordingly (which leads me to my next point.)

This absolutely has a tie to the budget for the role, whereas I see some are far too low, especially considering the niche expertise and multi-disciplinary requirements to be an impactful change agent in DEI. You can't just take a program manager role, throw some responsibilities of managing ERGs and DEI initiatives and call that a DEI Program Manager. Have you unpacked what skills are needed to manage ERG leaders? To locate hiring practice issues as well as environmental issues of inclusion? When you say background in racial and gender equity, how will you understand that via resume and interviewing? Creating a clear, realistic job description, compensation, and role title for DEI is key on so many levels, including getting the right hire.

DEI has historically been under-sourced and under-valued--which is ironic given that many DEI champions tend to be from the marginalized communities the organization serves. Compensation of DEI roles speaks to a company's commitment to equity just as much as a mission statement.

Passion is not enough--which I see as a pattern in these job descriptions as one of the sole qualifications as it pertains to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Passion for being a change agent and pushing for equity & inclusion is needed for stamina, to power your mission, and gain influence. Passion can be contagious and you need the stamina for the long struggles for incremental change. However, it would be irresponsible for that to be the only thing required to specialize in DEI work. Steering change is challenging. You can't bring others along if you do not have the education and understanding of how the world is for those you're serving. If you aren't educated on the current disparities that exist for marginalized communities and how they can manifest in your industry and workplace, your value to this work is questionable, in my opinion.

DEI Practitioners are part idealist, part realist. We may have a belief of how the world should be, but that doesn't cloud us from realizing that the world is NOT that now and there are folks who need help in this unidealized world right now. This is what pushes us to dig under the hood, and challenge policies, standards, and practices that make a barrier for those who need our support.

DEI is too broad to be competent in all areas.

DEI strategy and organizational changes are not easy lifts. There are many marginalized communities that have very different disparities and experiences. My flag goes up when a DEI practitioner doesn't have areas of specialization because a competent practitioner would not be a fit for all experiences and history of ALL the principles, needs and history of these marginalized communities. People are nuanced and complicated and so is DEI work.

For example, I specialize in racial equity, Anti-Blackness, gender equity and neurodiversity. Yes, I have knowledge and experience in disability equity, veteran and LGBTQIA+ equity, but I'm cognizant to bring in specialists in those areas once it's determined that is what the client needs. Dirty Diversity author and DEI consultant, Dr. Janice Gassam-Asare uses the metaphor that DEI practitoners are like doctors, and I feel it's a great comparison. Just like doctors refer you to other specialists when issues are outside their area of expertise, DEI practitioners know when to refer clients or partner with another practitioner once issues fall outside their wheelhouse. This cannot be about your ego. You're in the wrong business if that's the case. A DEI Practitioner primarily centers on the needs of the oppressed and their mental health (including the practitioner's).

You take on a debit in this work. You are working to earn trust in those who you're serving by amplifying their voices and putting action before rhetoric (which is what organizations love to fall back on when times get tough.) I cannot overstate how damaging putting the wrong people in these roles can be to the company and its employees. As a consultant, I'm usually brought in as a reaction to someone making a big mistake in DEI or working with a consultant who caused harm. Those folks doing the damage had passion, too. However, they lacked other knowledge and experience needed to uphold the DEI practitioner's mantra: "First, do no harm."

Thinking about the skills I've had to use

So, I sat down and put on my leadership hat and asked myself: "What skills, knowledge and experience did I have to use when working in DEI regardless of role?" This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I can assure you that I, personally had to pull from these skills nearly every time I worked as a consultant, led a DEI committee, or did DEI Program Management.

If you look at the list below, you'll see why I said the DEI discipline is so niched. It's not uncommon that those successful in these roles pull from a number of disciplines that ideally overlap: Education, Operations, Human Resources, and even Behavioral Science.

There's a big debate in the space on whether knowledge in HR is a requirement of most DEI roles, given that DEI and HR are still working out how to play better in the sandbox since their primary objectives don't always align. That's a topic for another day, however, I will say that in my experience, emotional intelligence, experience in operations, and, project management are just as important as HR knowledge in these types of internal roles.

HR understanding of compliance, employment laws, and investigations are valid knowledge for someone in almost any DEI role, and I would caution in assuming that an individual with extensive HR experience would be an ideal fit for a DEI role without educational and operational skills. As I said, HR as an industry is hitting a paradigm shift on who they should be serving. Ideally, it would be the same people that DEI is serving (see my comment on idealistic vs. realistic). HR has a number of archaic practices and objectives that don't serve the DEI mission and you want to reduce recreating HR in DEI practices and/or bringing that baggage into a different function.

There's a lot that organizations can learn about the HR function. Recreating its department in DEI is not it.

Finally, (and I'm gonna be transparent in my bias here), having operations skills is valuable here due to the need to EXECUTE on DEI initiatives. I've seen some HR functions struggle with getting out of their own way in managing both change, communication, and the people-first aspect of putting DEI into practice. Can this be learned? I believe it's possible with time. Is that the expectation in the DEI job descriptions? Not many that I have seen.

Skills, Knowledge, and Experience for DEI-focused roles

Background Subject Matter Knowledge

  • American (U.S) History

  • Jim Crow Laws & Anti-Blackness

  • Ugly Laws

  • Five Tenets of Critical Race Theory

  • Affirmative Action in the U.S.

  • Disability Laws, ADA, history from the perspectives of Disabled folks

  • Gender Studies & Sexuality

  • LGBTQ+ History in the U.S, Current laws & global overview

  • Healthcare disparities of marginalized individuals

  • Inclusive language

  • Social Identities, Power, Oppression & Privilege

  • Harassment in the workplace

  • Intersectionality (including Misogynoir)

  • Xenophobia in the U.S.

Influential Skills

  • Creating & championing new social norms

  • High Emotional Intelligence & Empathy

  • Conflict Management

  • Coaching skills

  • Storytelling through data

  • Building cross-functional partnerships

  • Actively being an upstander

  • Virtual and in-person communication tactics

Operational Skills

  • Organizational Development

  • Clear communication skills that speak to appropriate audiences

  • Project Management/Program Management (this is a marathon, not a sprint)

  • Change Management

  • Understanding Risks, assessing & mitigating risks

  • Procuring and vetting DEI & analytics tools

  • Creating KPIs, goal settings, OKRs

  • Business Process Design

  • Data Analytics (including People Analytics)

  • Running focus groups, survey design and creating feedback loops from employees

  • Budget analysis & planning

Educational Skills

  • Adult learning theories (Knowles’ Andragogy Theory, Experiential Learning, Collaborative Learning, etc.)

  • Curriculum creation & training objectives

  • Some knowledge of LMS

  • Appetite for constantly learning & educating oneself & others

Human Resources Skills

  • Confidentiality

  • Experience or understanding of conducting internal HR investigations

  • Employment Law & Compliance

  • Hiring Best Practices

  • Performance Management

  • Career Development

  • Onboarding processes

Leadership Skills (Especially in a DEI Management role)

  • Experience in people management

  • Understanding power dynamics in the workplace

  • Career Development

  • Succession planning

  • Creating & championing new social norms

  • High Emotional Intelligence & Empathy

  • Executive Sponsorship & Coaching

Passion can be contagious and you need the stamina for the long struggles for incremental change. However, it would be irresponsible for that to be the only thing required to specialize in DEI work.

Note that I haven't put any emphasis on certifications. The reason is that there are many certificate programs out there for Diversity. Some are legit, some are questionable and all have yet to prove that their certification truly serves as a primary branch of qualifications for DEI roles. This is not a knock on these programs, this is to say, frankly that there simply isn't enough data out there to make a call that a certain certification (Certified Diversity Practitioner, Certifed Diversity Executive, etc) reflects the necessary requirements these many DEI jobs are looking for and because these certifications are not provided by a centralized authority on DEI, the jury is out on which ones hold an overall standard or not. I do believe, however, it shows an individual's commitment to learning the fundamentals of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion by having a certification. With that said, the principles covered in these certifications can also be learned individually through other means and experience. In this space, we practice and preach acceptance of unconventional knowledge and career paths, so certifications are not a requirement.

Be discerning. Get Support

Establishing staffing in organizations with the right skills and qualifications is challenging in many fields, and with DEI--which is fast-growing and doesn't have a centralized or standard agreement on competencies like Accountants, Project Managers, or even Educators--must be treated with the utmost care and due diligence. As I said, hiring right is key to preventing damage to the company brand, internal structure, and most importantly, your employees who are relying on you to make productive change. If you need help, reach out for external support. There are many reputable DEI practitioners available to help you.

What other skills and knowledge have been valuable to you while working in a DEI role? Please share in the comments below!

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