Startup Life/Diversity & Inclusion/Opinion/

Think your startup’s ready for a head of diversity and inclusion? Think again

Considering hiring a head of diversity, equity and inclusion? Think before you leap.

Laura Smith
Laura Smith

By Laura Smith

While diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are top of the agenda for some of Europe’s fastest-growing companies, an organisation can’t just declare itself diverse, equitable and inclusive. You can’t speak that into being. You build it, you grow it with commitment, strategic action and accountability. 

A popular approach to building these values into a company is to hire an in-house DEI leader. But what’s popular isn’t always right — and in many cases, a designated leader isn’t the right choice. 

So how can startups and scaleups know when the time is right to hire a head of DEI? And how do you know whether you’re leaping into a brave new inclusive world or just plummeting into a performative fiasco instead? Here’s a starter checklist to figure out whether or not it’s time for that in-house DEI hire. 

Early-stage considerations: pragmatic prerequisites

Imagine you’re an early-stage startup with a commitment to building a better organisation and culture. You want someone internally dedicated to that. That commitment is admirable. But save your money. 

If you’re an early-stage company that hasn’t scaled yet, having an adviser or board member with expertise in this area is a more reliable predictor for positive DEI outcomes than having a dedicated DEI officer on the payroll.

What’s also more effective at this stage is enlisting a consultant to help identify relevant OKRs and KPIs and distributing ownership and accountability for DEI development across your organisation. 

“If you’re an early-stage company, having an adviser or board member with expertise is a more reliable predictor for positive DEI outcomes than a dedicated DEI officer”

When you (or your consultants) spot recurring issues; when your structure becomes more layered or hierarchical; when you grow or plan to grow significantly across new geographies, demographics or customer segments; or when just using consultants or advisers isn’t getting the job done fast enough, that’s when you’re well-positioned for dedicated in-house help. Before then, you’ve got a whole range of impactful options you might want to explore first. 

Growth-stage considerations: beyond decorative DEI

Second scenario: your company’s already the big kid on the block. You’ve scaled, you’ve seen some success. Does that mean you’re ready to add a DEI department to your payroll? Well… maybe. 

Despite championing industry disruption, most scaleups are not so keen on organisational disruption. So if you’ve come this far without a DEI role or department and things are kind of working, your internal stakeholders will likely be sceptical. You’ve got to be extremely clear about why the change is a risk worth taking to get adequate buy-in from executives, managers and teams to introduce and sustain a new DEI function or role. 

So find your DEI’s raison d’être first: use a consultancy and discover where you’re at and where you want to be as an organisation. That way you’ll avoid inadvertently introducing in-house DEI as nothing more than corporate cubic zirconia: a cheap and shiny decorative department that’s more for organisational bling than to add real value.

Executive support: setting up for success

Now, here’s a fun exercise: ask C-suite executives of European scaleups without a DEI function whether they have plans to add one in the next year. If your sample is anything like mine, about 40% of them are considering doing so — with that in-house function or role reporting to an HR department, not to the C-suite.

And if you’re an extremely inquisitive person as I am, and you ask why they’re looking to start DEI under HR, you’ll likely get one of three answers: 1/ it’s what most companies do; 2/ it’s an internal topic, mainly; or 3/ they don’t have availability or interest for someone reporting to them in that area. That first answer is a rubbish reason for anything, the second an understandable misunderstanding, but the third — that might indicate a lack of readiness for an impactful in-house DEI hire at all.

As previously noted, DEI development will not work without organisational support, but it certainly won’t go anywhere without executive support, either… and that support will require time. If you find that your C-suite (particularly your CEO) has neither time nor interest to collaborate with or support DEI development, then this may not be the moment to add an in-house hire. Because, in reality, if you don’t have time to listen to or support your DEI hires, then you’ll soon need more time to replace them. 

People first: human priorities

New in-house DEI functions and roles are often meant to develop inclusive and equitable experiences for employees, but to be viable, there must be room for DEI leaders to be supported themselves. The reality is that heart work is hard work, and DEI leaders often burn out. 

There must be room for DEI leaders to be supported themselves. Heart work is hard work. 

If you’re not sure whether you’re ready to support your first in-house DEI hires, consider: Will they have adequate mental health coverage? Are you prepared to welcome and flexibly support potentially different physical abilities or neurodiversity? Is there support for their LGBTQ partners or their families of various types? Your answers to these will absolutely limit which DEI talent you can bring in and which you can keep. 

People leading in-house DEI development are more likely to hail from minority or marginalised groups; discuss in advance how you can ensure their differences will be supported and their voices heard if you want them to stay long enough to build inclusive and equitable experiences for others. If you’re not ready for those conversations or actions yet, then you might not be ready to recruit or retain your first DEI hires. 

Commitment and accountability are key to making in-house DEI a success

DEI development — particularly in-house development — requires commitment and accountability, both of which require a certain degree of preparation. You don’t just jump in.   

If you’re looking to make an actual impact with an in-house hire, make sure the need for the role is clearly understood, the support for the role is there at the executive level, and that such support is demonstrated through executive access, time and equitable accommodation. 

No one gets things right from the start — no worries.

Just make sure that however you develop your DEI, you maintain a commitment to grow, to learn, to do better for your business and the many, diverse stakeholders who make it possible.

Laura Smith is an organisational researcher, inclusion coach, and former Head of DEI for Bolt

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