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Three percent. That’s the distressingly low number of Black Americans who say they are eager to return to full-time office work versus 21% of white workers overall as the pandemic winds down, according to a recent Future Forum survey – and the numbers are not much better for other often-marginalized groups, from LGBTQ employees and women to the disabled. A rash of high-profile incidents, including the killing of George Floyd in broad daylight and the subsequent outbreak of global protests, shone a lightning-hot spotlight on inequality at all levels of society. The attention has prompted what news site Axios recently called a chief diversity officer hiring “frenzy” that has seen titles like “head of diversity” spike 104% over the past five years, as organizations rush to hire executive-level experts to conduct top-to-bottom reviews and implement best DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) practices. But those serving in such roles say that beyond the headlines, there has long been a critical need to create workplaces that are more inclusive – ones that feel welcoming to all, including the more than 90% of diverse workers now reluctant to return full-time to the office, citing everyday microaggressions, the need to “code switch” (change behavior, speech or appearance at work), a lack of representation at the highest levels, longer commutes to city centers and a disproportionate child and family care burden at home, among other everyday stressors. Organizations “are realizing the importance, necessity for and benefits of an effective DEI strategy and how much of a difference it can make across an organization,” said Tracey Walker, national leader of Culture, Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) at RSM US LLP, which formalized its commitment to the effort in 2013 with a national program to advance a culture of inclusion within the firm and has since grown to 12 employee network groups (ENGs), with both regional and national ENG leaders and CDI champions in every office. “There is deeper conversation around not only having a diverse workforce but leveraging the power of an inclusive workforce and the benefits to retaining your workforce and being relevant into the future,” Ms. Walker said, adding that not only do employees now expect companies to hold to higher values, culture and corporate social responsibility, “clients and communities expect companies to have a workforce that is reflective of the ever-changing marketplace they serve.” High expectations Liz Tovar, who was named the University of Iowa’s executive officer and associate vice president of the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in February after serving in that role on an interim basis since August 2020, agreed there is now an expectation companies, organizations and educational institutions will pay attention to DEI issues. Roles like hers have become nearly universal at colleges and universities around the country, she said, including within the Big Ten, where she and her fellow CDOs meet at least once monthly. While some of the newfound growth in diversity officers is a result of the country being shocked out of complacency by the rise in videotaped police violence and other incidences of systemic racism, Ms. Tovar said DEI goes deeper and broader than a kneejerk reaction to news events. “I think it’s really about helping people understand the human experiences,” she said, adding her dual role as associate athletics director overseeing UI Student-Athlete Academic Services has offered unique insight and perspective into DEI issues. “And [diversity] doesn’t necessarily have to pertain to race; it can pertain to gender, or what does it mean to be a person who’s grown up in rural Iowa and then comes to the University of Iowa?” she said. “What I think people don’t understand is that everyone that comes into our system needs a certain level of help and support. And I think that’s where the chief diversity officer’s role really is: Making sure that this is a welcoming and inclusive environment.” Ms. Tovar said the idea of diversity is easiest to understand, with at least nine different dimensions pertaining to age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, class, disability and nationality. “It’s the idea that everyone comes from a different background and upbringing or experience, and therefore they bring something a little different to the university community,” she said. “The equity and inclusion pieces – I think people are still trying to grasp what that means.” Raising awareness While many think of HR practices first, DEI is actually a business or organizational strategy, encompassing everything from making sure the culture promotes equity to ensuring it is marketing and communicating to employees, consumers and the community in an inclusive way. At RSM US, Cedar Rapids-based Erika Brighi, who serves in project management for the company’s national CDI team, said the strategy rests on four pillars, including: Workforce: The recruitment, advancement and retention of underrepresented women and minorities and the inclusive talent experience for all professionals. Workplace: An enterprise-wide Inclusion Council comprised of the CEO and other executive leaders to ensure CDI is a funded and strategic priority. Marketplace: Providing inclusive thought leadership to all industries as well as supporting diverse suppliers and organizations across the profession. Community: Supporting nonprofit efforts, scholarship and professional development, and charitable organizations in the communities where it does business. “At RSM, culture, diversity and inclusion are how we thrive – not only because it’s part of our values, but because it’s how we foster an inclusive workforce, help the middle market address an ever-changing world and generate better business results for our firm and our clients,” Ms. Brighi said, adding that RSM integrates and implements the pillars through “local CDI champions” and regional and national ENG leaders. RSM also offers national training and professional development programs for varied staff levels in the tax, audit and consulting lines of business and incorporates diversity and inclusiveness learning and practices into annual training sessions. The goal, Ms. Brighi said, is to both raise awareness and enhance skill sets by helping everyone understand the importance of cultural dexterity “and to practice inclusive behaviors as a natural part of our business and identity.” All encompassing Since taking on the permanent UI role earlier this year, Ms. Tovar said she has been “doing a lot of listening” to the campus community and assessing the “steps that we need to take as a university to really move us forward and prepare us for the next 10 to 15 years as our university becomes more and more diverse.” Some of that goes back to determining what the terms diversity, equity and inclusion mean in the UI context and how that will play out on a day-to-day basis. Ms. Tovar currently oversees three units: The Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity office, the UI’s primary investigative unit charged with civil rights and Title IX investigations; the university’s primary diversity training programs, including the BUILD Training Initiative, a DEI certification program; and the student-centered Center for Diversity and Enrichment, responsible for offering resources and support to underrepresented minority students, first generation college students and others. Over the past year, Ms. Tovar said she has also worked hard to improve communication streams about what DEI entails and UI’s efforts in that direction, including adding a strategic communications arm. She has also added a research and data analysis position to implement “more of a hub and spoke model similar to what HR has created” for her department, and formed an advisory committee made up of key DEI unit leaders from each UI college to spearhead strategic planning efforts and have “a really clear pulse on what they’re doing within their college or unit offices.” “When you think about the executive officer for DEI role … it’s really kind of all encompassing, you are not only seeing matters that pertain to underrepresented minority students, but any types of issues that pertain to race, gender or other marginalized groups,”. Ms. Tovar said. “And I will tell you that if you were looking back 30 years ago, you would maybe see these types of positions kind of pop up across campuses, but never really in a more in a formalized, essential way. And now fast forward to 2021. These individuals are reporting up through president’s office and provost’s office and really helping universities to orchestrate their DEI strategic planning efforts.” Essential efforts Whether in an educational, corporate or even governmental setting, organizations are finding hiring an executive to direct and manage diversity efforts is now a matter of remaining relevant. The Cedar Rapids City Council passed a resolution last summer to hire a full-time staff member dedicated to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion priorities on a local level, and large local employers from Transamerica to Collins Aerospace parent Raytheon have DEI officers in their C-suites. “When diverse minds come together to advance innovation and business growth, they propel the economic progress of communities around the world,” said Marie R. Sylla-Dixon, who was named Raytheon’s chief diversity officer in January. Ms. Walker said DEI efforts have now become “essential” in the workplace. “Though not every business or organization has a ‘chief diversity officer, companies do need to be clear on who has accountability for the sustained DEI effort,” she said. “Every organization is ‘diverse’ in some way – and for this reason, the appreciation of diversity, its acceptance, adaptation to and leveraging of unique attributes of the workforce require detailed inclusive strategies and aligned investments.” What’s more, Ms. Walker said, organizations must set out specific aims, metrics and accountability. “People leave jobs for a number of reasons,” she said. “More recently, the data cites reasons including employees do not feel included, nor that they belong and feel that they are not valued or free to be authentic. So, yes, a sustained [DEI] effort built on a strategy that is aligned with the company strategic goals is a business imperative if companies want to be relevant and successful into the future.”