Does D&I need professionalising?
By Annie Makoff on 20 April 2022
Diversity and inclusion is a relatively new specialism, at least in the UK. There remains a lack of official frameworks, qualifications and benchmarks which would help ‘professionalise’ a growing function.
Some D&I professionals believe there’s an argument for actually splitting the D&I function as different skillsets are needed for both diversity and inclusion, while others focus on the different pathways to D&I and the debate around required skills versus lived experience.
So what do D&I experts think – does D&I need professionalising? We spoke to those in the field for their views.
Yes and no: we need a consistent approach towards D&I skillsets but it’s more important for other functions to incorporate D&I principles into their standards
Birgit Neu, senior DEI advisor & former global head of D&I, HSBC
There are rapidly changing interpretations and expectations of what D&I means. On one end of the spectrum, companies and/or HR leaders define this as recruiting/developing diverse talent. On the other end, companies may take an enterprise-wide D&I approach tied to business strategy which looks to engage diversity of all types. And there’s everything in between. Therefore, depending on the company’s definition, very different skill sets will be required for D&I professionals.
So yes, there needs to be a consistent approach towards skillsets when recruiting and developing D&I professionals, but as long as D&I has such inconsistent definitions, it will be extremely challenging for an external organisation to deliver professional accreditation which can effectively meet such as a wide-range of company needs.
In my view, there is an alternative way. As in-house D&I teams are increasingly collaborating with other accredited professionals across HR and the rest of their businesses e.g. in marketing, procurement and IT, it is more important for these other professions to add a robust D&I lens to their standards, best practices and regulations for their accreditation if we want D&I truly embedded in the DNA of how companies operate.
Yes and no: professionalising the industry may create inequality, but a degree of monitoring or standardisation is needed
Ashanti Bentil-Dhue, DEI inclusion practitioner and founder and CEO, Good Soil Leaders
There are concerns with professionalising the industry. Not everyone can afford to pay for a course, certification or qualification and this would create more inequality. Others believe that ‘professionalising’ D&I is tantamount to gatekeeping who can and cannot do this work.
Yet, without some kind of monitoring or standardisations of key skills, competencies and verifiable work experience, results will vary and the credibility of our industry will suffer. Worryingly, I’ve seen a lot of opinion-based advice being given based on narrow personal perspectives.
Organisations need to know they are hiring credible experts who have relevant experience. This is why I’m wanting to set up standards for D&I consultants – to ensure that at the very least, there is a standard of practice and delivery across the industry.
I’d also like to see a structured learning path along with coaching and development focused on specific key competencies.
We should all be ethical and accountable in our practice and in order to protect the credibility of what we do in an already complex climate, we should have a standard expectation when it comes to skills, experience, competencies, delivery and service.
No: Lack of accreditation is not the issue – it’s about lack of influence and clout
Rachel Davis, joint MD, Armstrong Craven
The lack of a professional qualification and a certificate is not the issue. In my view, it’s the lack of influence and clout given to in-house D&I leaders.
They need to have a place at board level, be the budget-owner and have the freedom to spend the budget. They need to be formally sponsored and supported by the CEO and board in their professional practice and crucially, they need to be fully enabled to make policy decisions and implement change. The DE&I function should possibly even be able to enforce change and have a compliance element to it in order to hold the business accountable for its actions.
If all this becomes commonplace, then the need for a professional qualification is just a nice to have. D&I therefore stops being lip service, where too many organisations focus on diversity element and totally ignore the inclusion element.
Yes: D&I professionals can only influence workplace culture with the right backing of skills, knowledge and experience
Charlotte Sweeney OBE, founder, Charlotte Sweeney Associates
There is a huge expectation hanging over the role of a DE&I professional – we are expected to change the culture of a company and effectively change the world with, often, limited resources. We can only do that when we have the backing of skills, knowledge and expertise. For some doing this role, they do this from a personal passion or personal experience point of view – however, that alone is not going to give you the skills, knowledge and expertise to drive and influence change. Organisations don’t hire a Head of Finance purely because they like money, so organisations shouldn’t hire a Head of DE&I purely because they have an interest in the subject matter.
Creating standards and ethics for this work are key. We are dealing with people’s lived experiences every single day, with that comes responsibility to do the right thing, the trust to use information appropriately and the conviction to be brave enough to challenge the status quo.
Yes: there needs to be a deeper understanding of skills and experience required for D&I professionals
Frank Douglas, chartered companion CIPD and CEO, Caerus Executive
D&I is still a relatively young function. One of the most fundamental issues around D&I is to challenge the dominant culture which tends to be white, heterosexual, able-bodied men.
There have been very few discussions around what it takes to be a good D&I professional including the debate around strong opinion and lived experience versus expertise.
We often talk about D&I as one thing but actually, they are very different skillsets, so there’s an argument for splitting the function. At its most basic level, diversity is a procurement function. It’s getting the right people at the right price, at the right time in a fair and equitable manner. Inclusion is change management and culture change. It’s very rare that in any other function you would find the person in charge of procurement as the same person utilising and maximising it. Buying computers is a different skill from coding computers.
So there needs to be a deeper understanding of the key stills needed to be a D&I professional, especially around true inclusion and an organisation-wide commitment to transformation.
Yes: D&I professionals shouldn’t become a ‘catch all’ for all D&I issues
Abi Adamson, founder and DEI director, The Diversity Partnership
D&I does needs professionalising. We have some people in this field that are causing more harm than good, with some professionals speaking for communities they are not part of. We have to be careful as D&I professionals that we don’t just become a catch-all for all diversity and inclusion issues.
Just as HR functions vary from recruitment to rewards to employee relations, something similar may well emerge for D&I professionals in the future. We may start to see those that deal with strategies, and others that deal with diversifying talent pipelines.
Yet there’s no one size fits all approach because every organisation has its own challenges.
View more d&i Leaders articles
d&i Leaders is a global community of senior diversity, inclusion and HR focused professionals, looking to collaborate, network and accelerate their workplace inclusion strategy.