The CHRO’s critical role in promoting ethnic diversity
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI)

The CHRO’s critical role in promoting ethnic diversity

The view from the C-suite still looks nothing like the diverse world outside, so how can leaders address this?
Three tips for getting started
  • Diagnose bottlenecks. Starting with your current baseline, measure the diversity of your hiring short lists and use this to track your hiring and retention rate after 18 months. Do a similar exercise to determine the diversity of your suppliers.
  • Promote champions. Identify diverse, internal role models in positions of seniority. Seek ways to get them front and center to promote your culture.
  • Start a dialogue. What causes does your BAME talent support? What boards do they sit on? These represent possibilities for your company to more meaningfully engage with diverse communities.

It’s 2018, and the view from the C-suite and boardroom still looks nothing like the ethnically and racially diverse world outside. In the United Kingdom, just 4% of CEOs1 and 6% of board members2 in the FTSE 100 are black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME), despite members of this community making up 14% of the working-age population. In the United States, 37% of the private-sector workforce is nonwhite, but just 13% of executives are minorities.3

The importance of diversity to team and company performance should by now be a given, yet the nationalism that fueled the Brexit decision and the election of US President Donald Trump is reminding HR leaders on both sides of the Atlantic that progress on diversity cannot be taken for granted. If companies are to reach an increasingly diverse population of customers, suppliers, and partners—or, for that matter, if they are to do the right thing—then CHROs must be more prepared than ever to instigate difficult conversations in the following three areas.

1.  Are we meaningfully involved?

“Diversity” is a big bucket. Too many companies have a fuzzy definition of which communities, precisely, they want to connect with—let alone have a familiarity with them. By contrast, forward-looking companies have specific communities in mind and engage with them directly.

Forming genuine relationships with these communities helps move companies' past “tick the box” behaviors that stymie some diversity efforts. For example, some companies participate in diversity forums or programs that send participants to networking opportunities organized specifically for BAME executives (a practice that we find is more common in the United States than in the United Kingdom). The Executive Leadership Council in the United States is a good example of a professional-development and networking organization that benefits and inspires current BAME executives.

If you don’t already participate in your target communities, determine where they are and what organizations matter to them. If these organizations don’t exist, are you in a position to create one?

2.  Who's in our pipeline (and do we have one)?

The talent pipeline is key,4 but many companies are hindered by inherent biases. To fill your pipeline with BAME talent, start with an understanding that the journeys of these employees will be different from those of white employees. The best universities, for example, are not as accessible to many disadvantaged populations—so a preference to hire from only the top schools means your pipeline will likely be whitewashed.

EY, for example, removed its minimum grade requirements and added a “blind CV” program to university recruiting in order to fight unconscious bias in hiring decisions. The company saw the number of recruits who were the first in their family to go to college increase by 7%.5 Similarly, a global bank we’ve studied expanded its focus on historically black US colleges and universities to identify colleges with rising Latino populations, bolstering the company’s reach into communities in which it previously had little traction.

Some companies maintain a view on more experienced talent as well—for example, by conducting periodic talent-mapping exercises to create detailed snapshots of the BAME executives in a particular specialty (say, clinical development in pharmaceuticals, or R&D).

Your company also needs to demonstrate that it is a destination for BAME talent. A vocal commitment to issues your target population cares about is one step. You also need to role-model diversity at the right level. If you want a pipeline filled with women and people of color, but all your thought leaders and executives are white men, your appeal sounds hollow. A sincere approach to filling your pipeline recognizes that these optics are important and incorporates a diagnostic review of how your company is currently seen by these target communities.

3.  Do our diverse colleagues want to stay?

Many companies assume that top talent will rise in a meritocracy, but a combination of company culture, unconscious biases, and other factors often prevents this from being the case. The key to retaining BAME talent is mentorship and sponsorship. When key BAME hires are brought on, make sure they have mentors who will smooth their integration onto the team and sponsors who will ensure they are getting prime assignments and opportunities. One global pharma company runs sponsorship programs in each of its major divisions. By providing its up-and-coming diverse executives with access to networking events, structured career plans, and meaningful relationships and face time with more senior colleagues, the company maintains a retention rate among diverse leaders that is markedly higher than that of its peers.

A true commitment to building a diverse workforce, from the front line to the C-suite, starts with an honest reflection on why the company doesn’t look like its customer base. The CHRO will be best placed to spark such conversations within the executive team and across the company. By combining sincerity, authenticity, and, above all, consistency in their diversity efforts, CHROs can help their organizations become more inclusive—a result that benefits business and society alike.

About the authors

Billy Dexter ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Chicago office and the Americas regional diversity leader. He co-leads the Diversity Advisory Services Practice that assists clients in creating diverse leadership teams.

Niren Thanky is an alumnus of the London office.

A version of this article was originally published by Changeboard.


1 Diverse magazine, “Top 100 black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) business leaders,” May 30, 2017.

2 DiversityUK, “Diversity in the UK: Corporate Britain.”

3 Catherine Hill, Kevin Miller, Kathleen Benson, and Grace Handley, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, American Association of University Women (AAUW), March 2016.

4 Jean Martin, “Keeping diversity and inclusion at the top of the agenda,” Changeboard, December 7, 2015.

5 Zlata Rodionova, “EY’s ‘blind CV’ policy for all trainee applications has inspired surge in workforce diversity,” The Independent, February 2, 2017.


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