DEI Churn & Burn Is Real—Here's What You Can Do To Stop It

5 min read | Kelly Primus


There is a disturbing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) trend taking place in organizations of all sizes and across all industries as leaders do everything (or so they think) to create a more inclusive culture. Organizations will appoint a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) and then expect that one person (or team) to fix everything without providing them the necessary resources, budget or executive support to be successful. And then they'll wonder why, in 12 to 24 months, the CDO quits. At Leading NOW, we’re calling this the “DEI Churn & Burn.”

I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately with frustrated executives who don’t understand why they’ve shown no progress in their D&I measures at their organizations and/or can’t seem to retain their DEI talent. Some of them have even churned through several CDOs and have struggled to implement successful DEI strategies. They are flat-out perplexed as to why they aren’t making progress.

Here’s why. To effect real change in an organization’s company culture, there are three things a DEI strategy needs to have to be successful: funding, leadership support and goals that are both agreed upon and measurable.

According to a recent HR Dive article, nearly 65% of employers surveyed said diversity, equity and inclusion matter, but nearly just as many (63%) said their organization allocated little or no resources to DEI.

This scenario is not uncommon. What we’ve been seeing for years now as we track and follow the trends in DEI, is a huge problem created by the lack of commitment to the DEI role within the organization. Organizations are basically creating a box, dumping the DEI problem in it and handing it to someone to fix––and oh, by the way, telling this person they have no access to resources to support their work. It’s like a game of hot potato where the leadership team walks away and thinks their part is done and is then bewildered by the lack of progress or the CDO’s departure.

Harvard Business Review’s article on why middle managers struggle to implement DEI strategies says “more than 70% of organizational changes fail, for various reasons, such as the failure to allocate sufficient resources or to get endorsement from the leadership team.” The article goes on to say that DEI-related organizational change must operate in parallel to, and often compete with, existing business initiatives. And when establishing DEI targets, you must build long-term mindsets across the business. 

I couldn’t agree more. Our own research from the Center for Diversity & Inclusion on Cultural Dynamics in the Workplace™ identified these three barriers to DEI success:

  1. Leaders are undermining DEI initiatives

  2. Detrimental attitudes by the majority in leadership roles

  3. DEI has not been elevated to a business initiative

To tackle these barriers, organizations must begin by changing the mindsets of their leaders. One major mindset leaders have is that they don’t need to do anything because they hired a CDO. When companies do that, the CDO realizes that leaders either have no idea how their behaviors are impacting organizational culture or the company is not actually committed to DEI.

It will take the CDO or DEI professional time to identify the problems within the organization, but if leadership doesn’t want to hear what they are doing wrong or doesn't want to support the CDO’s solutions in the short and long term, they will look for opportunities elsewhere. And so the churn & burn cycle kicks in.

How do you break the cycle?

Organizations need experienced people leading their DEI initiative and the full support of the leadership team. DEI needs resources assigned to the initiative and executive sponsors who support the CDO’s work. The HBR article corroborates that “DEI efforts have progressed to become strategic initiatives with budgets, accountability metrics, headcount, and dedicated leadership, so the time is ripe for the DEI change process to mature.”

This means giving your CDO the resources to do the job you hired them to do––from allowing them to use an assessment or software platform that tracks how employees feel about their engagement in the organization to external DEI experts who come in to consult or deliver education programs. Leadership must support DEI experts and trust their recommendations––if they say the organization needs an assessment to identify the problems, by all means, support the request. In other words, give your CDO the resources they need instead of expecting them to solve all of it on their own.

Here are three (3) things that can help stop the DEI churn & burn:

  1. Stop appointing someone who has no background in HR or no experience or exposure to DEI strategy just because they check off the right demographic box. You would never hire or promote someone without financial acumen into the role of CFO, would you?
  2. Stop thinking your DEI problems can be fixed by hiring one person without funding the initiative appropriately. By providing the necessary resources to DEI, you will be able to set a realistic plan to reach the organization’s goals.
  3. Stop expecting the CDO to be able to instantly identify what problems need to be solved and to have solutions ready to use. It takes time to assess what the barriers to inclusion are in any company and to determine the appropriate solutions.

Keep in mind that DEI is not a short-term fix. For a culture of inclusion to prevail, it must be an ongoing journey. This isn’t about a simple unconscious bias class. The organization has to recognize, commit to and support the CDO in this long-term transformation of the organization’s culture.

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Forbes Human Resources Council_LogoThis article was originally written for the Forbes Human Resources Council, and published on the Forbes website in December 2022. You can see Kelly Lockwood Primus' other Forbes articles on her author page