Should DEI be separate from HR?
By Annie Makoff on 22 September 2023
DEI may have evolved initially from the HR function, but whether it should remain part of HR or separate is an issue that’s been hotly debated in recent years.
DEI practitioners are somewhat split on this, although most agree it shouldn’t sit within HR per say. Some believe DEI should be a centralised entity in its own right, while others say it should report directly to the CEO to ensure it is given the priority it deserves.
Sitting within HR, explains Helen Choudhury, MBA, D&I Practitioner and Head of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at the Music Publishers Association (UK), risks DEI being overlooked by HR-specific priorities and KPIs. Likewise, HR could ‘unintentionally create delays or obstacles’ to DEI initiatives, because the function doesn’t have the time or resources to dedicate to DEI work.
“Viewing DEI as strictly an HR function is incorrect,” says Choudhury. “HR is responsible for recruiting, hiring, terminating, training and development, policies, benefits, government regulation, legal compliance, safety and employee relations. DEI, on the other hand is a much broader concept that should be integrated and operationalised into every aspect of an organisation.”
Suki Bassi, DEI Wellbeing and Culture professional and founder of boutique DEI consultancy HappyMaven agrees. “In my experience, when DEI sits within HR, it’s seen as predominantly HR’s responsibility and no one else takes accountability for it.”
Reporting to the c-suite
So what’s the answer? If DEI should no longer be part of HR, where should it sit?
“DEI makes the most measurable impact when it sits firmly within the c-suite,” says Bassi. “You then have shared ownership of an essential function, with clear recognition that DEI touches all aspects of an organisation. It’s not something you can just outsource to HR.”
In fact, Bassi told d&i Leaders that she can always tell how effective or impactful she is going to be with new clients just by who sends the first email or picks up the phone initially – whether it’s the marketing assistant, the HRD or the CEO. “You can tell how much of a priority and how much importance DEI has been given,” Bassi explains. “And if we’re approached by an employee forum, when there is no clear mandate for DEI initiatives, it’s just optics.”
Over the six years HappyMaven have been operating, Bassi says her ‘spidey sense’ has been right every single time. “When we’re approached by a CEO, I know the outcome will be powerful and impactful because every single person knows that DEI is a priority.”
At the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), this is precisely how DEI is run. As a national governing body, ECB works in partnership with over 55 different cricket organisations to deliver DEI outcomes for the whole of cricket, so a wide-reaching DEI strategy is important. The team sits under the Deputy CEO and serves not just to deliver an internal DEI approach but an external one, too.
“This gives us the freedom to work across the organisation rather than specialising in a functional area like HR,” says Kate Aldridge, Interim EDI Director, ECB. “The benefit of sitting as a separate department yet connecting with all of them, means it encourages a collaborative approach.”
So if Events are embarking on a DEI project, DEI will be aware of another department doing something that could support their work and put them in touch. “It enables us to achieve outcomes which are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s about amplifying DEI’s work by sharing ideas and learnings.”
To this end, Kate believes DEI should be seen as a business partner, supporting DEI principles to be integrated across the entire business. “As organisations progress on their journey, DEI starts to embed into everyone’s day-to-day practices and you can really multiply the effects,” she explains. “When you set up that approach, where everyone is responsible, the DEI role shifts from the function delivering all the work themselves to being the enablers for everyone delivering their own piece of work.”
Semantics and strategy
For Richard Odufisan, formerly DEI Lead at Wayve Technologies however, it’s less about where DEI sits and much more about whether the DEI team have access to the right resources, people and departments. “DEI should never be a standalone function. It needs to be integrated across the whole people space. But even that won’t work if it’s not properly resourced, so it’s a question of semantics,” he points out.
Odufisan also highlights the importance of having the right governance structures in place, particularly if DEI is a separate function. It’s about having clear frameworks and a good understanding of how DEI will work in relation to other departments. “Because there is a danger of DEI being completely isolated if it’s completely separate,” he warns. “It can make it much more difficult to create individual connection points to each department. Yet being part of HR isn’t necessarily the golden goose either.”
Birgit Neu, Senior DEI Advisor, takes a similar view. But she’s also of the opinion that DEI shouldn’t sit within HR ‘by default’. The starting point should be the business strategy: what do you want DEI activity to help the business achieve? Where are the biggest opportunities?
“Ultimately, DEI needs to be close to where the business outcomes will come from,” she says. “If an organisation’s focus for DEI is about commercial opportunities, then maybe DEI shouldn’t be sat in HR. Equally, if DEI is meant to be about talent and is sat in HR, but wider conversations there aren’t addressing DEI, that won’t work either. DEI has to be in the right place based on what you’re trying to do and where it gets the strategic support.”
Helen agrees. In her view, DEI needs to be the job of every department. “It shouldn’t just be an add-on or a hiring plan which evaporates the moment the organisation is satisfied it has recruited diverse employees,” she insists. “We need to understand that DEI is the responsibility of everyone within the organisation.”
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.